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‘Detroit’ Review: Kathryn Bigelow’s Harrowing Docudrama Is a Bumpy but Bracingly Physical Portrait of Race in America

Bigelow's film about the 1967 Detroit riots has considerably more to say about hatred than it does the pain that hatred leaves behind.

"Detroit"

“Detroit”

Francois Duhamel

The next time we see Krauss is at a a seedy joint in the Virginia Park neighborhood. Most of the time, the Algiers Motel was a base for hookers and narcotics, but during the riots it became a shelter for anyone who was looking to get off the streets for the night. And on that night — the night during which the deeply unnerving middle portions of “Detroit” take place — the guests happened to include Vietnam vet Robert Greene (Anthony Mackie), doo-wop singers Cleveland Larry Reed and Fred Temple (Algee Smith and Jacob Latimore, both phenomenal), a 17-year-old named Carl Cooper (played by 30-year-old “Straight Outta Compton” breakout Jason Mitchell), a kid named Aubrey Pollard (Nathan Davis Jr.), and two white cosmetology school dropouts (Kaitlyn Dever and Hannah Murray) who may have been turning tricks. When Cooper fires a harmless starter pistol at the National Guard troops, Krauss rolls into the Algiers and lines everyone against the wall, taking hostages like a racist frat boy who’s willfully confused the difference between hazing and hatred.

Bigelow is clearly most comfortable when making us uncomfortable. Even with the erratic camerawork (which finally comes into its own during the Algiers standoff) she’s in full command during the breathless second act, which shrinks the riot down to a few small rooms and dramatizes the unfolding tragedy with the senseless terror of a home invasion. “Detroit” is bookended by historical Cliffsnotes that implore viewers to take a step back and consider the big picture, but the extended set-piece at the center of the movie is solely focused on survival. Most of it is filmed in extreme close-up, history coming back at us through the beads of sweat on Krauss’ forehead, blood drying on the girls’ foreheads, and the fear in Robert Greene’s eyes. There’s no escape from this, no looking away as Bigelow uses the tropes of horror cinema to distill a physiological response to institutional racism.

John Boyega Detroit

“Detroit”

No white person can speak to the experience of being black in America, and no movie is ever going to change that, but the sheer force of “Detroit” has the power to confirm for their bodies what they should already know in their minds. Without a hint of moral equivocation, Bigelow underscores the blunt truth of Cooper’s defining line: “When you’re black it’s almost like having a gun pointed at your face.” Some reactions will be informed by experience, others only by the chill of a new sensation, but for those 70 minutes or so the audience holds their breath as one.

That overlap is personified by a stoic young security guard named Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega). Clad in a cheap blue uniform that makes it difficult for Krauss and the National Guard troops to process his blackness, Dismukes is effectively a day-walker who’s able to navigate between both sides of the conflict — he’s a bystander, and it’s only a matter of time before he becomes the film’s conscience. Boyega is excellent in the role, offering another stellar performance in a movie that’s impeccably cast all the way down to John Krasinski as a smarmy lawyer, but the scattershot third act that Bigelow and Boal create for him does very little to meaningfully galvanize this story.

Aside from a few poignant character details and a maddening scene in which detectives look at Dismukes in a new light, the film’s exasperating final chapter says in 25 minutes what a title card could have said with the same impact in 25 seconds. In doing so, it reduces most of its characters to their most basic facts, scattering them to the winds instead of watching their wounds scab over. In form, at least, it’s a frustratingly diffuse ending for a story that concentrates this much truth about who we are and how we got here into a single night so vivid it feels like the sun hasn’t come up since. “Detroit” is considerably more fluent in hatred than it is in the pain that hatred leaves behind, but that burden has always been ours to bear.

Grade: B

“Detroit” opens in New York and Los Angeles on July 28th. It will open in theaters nationwide on August 4.

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