If Kathryn Bigelow wants to work exclusively with Mark Boal, she’ll receive zero complaints here.
The Point Break director turned a career corner when she teamed with the screenwriter on 2008’s Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker and wisely hasn’t looked back. After solidifying their dynamic on Zero Dark Thirty, the team keeps its perfect record intact with Detroit, an uncompromising dramatization of the city’s 1967 race riots that feels like precisely the work the filmmakers intended.
Opening with a welcome animated primer on The Great Migration, white flight and the inevitability of riots from other racially tense U.S. spots spreading to the Motor City, Detroit jumps right into a pressure-cooker situation at an unlicensed bar that serves as the tipping point for the already agitated black community.
Carefully crafted through handheld, docudrama-style camerawork and borderline intrusive character proximity, Bigelow puts viewers in the middle of the terror and rarely relents.
Subsequent check-ins with a host of disparate individuals suggest a multiple storyline approach ranging throughout the city, but these are mere introductions to the figures who’ll converge at the Algiers Motel for the fact-based atrocities that occurred within its walls.
At the center is “Cleveland” Larry Reed (Algee Smith, Earth to Echo), lead singer of the soul quartet The Dramatics, who goes from being about to take the stage after Martha and the Vandellas to having the worst night of his life.
When he and his bandmate’s little brother Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore, Collateral Beauty) get to the Algiers, it feels like a sanctuary from the riots and police brutality, especially in entertaining flirtations with white Ohio tourists Julie (Hannah Murray, Gilly from Game of Thrones) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever, Short Term 12).
Their stay turns a shade darker when the four head to the room of Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell, Straight Outta Compton’s Eazy-E), whose brief but memorable time onscreen reveals tensions within the black community and tilts Detroit into its disturbing core section when his prank unintentionally attracts police activity.
All but handed a jail sentence for prior misconduct, newish police officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter, The Revenant) grants himself a license to act above the law, answers Carl’s “call” and brings cohorts Flynn (Ben O’Toole, Hacksaw Ridge) and Demens (Jack Reynor, Sing Street) along for the abuse of power.
Known for more innocent roles, Poulter is terrifying as the lead racist cop while the simple detail of O’Toole’s greasy strands of hair falling on his face convey mistrust as much as his actions. Though several false moments arise from each of the officers as they succumb to cliché actions and words, their sadistic toying with the captive men and women is effective overall and recalls the raw brutality of The Stanford Prison Experiment — albeit with actual life-or-death consequences.
Into this powder keg steps John Boyega, strongly resembling a young Denzel Washington as Boy Scout security guard and metal worker Melvin Dismukes. Given a far juicier part than Anthony Mackie — who nonetheless excels in his limited screen time as a newly returned Vietnam veteran — the Force Awakens star excels as a middle man of sorts who sees his good deeds frustratingly punished.
Difficult as the Algiers incident and its potential courtroom reckoning are to stomach, Detroit manages to end on a relatively hopeful note and send audiences home with a little less hate in their blood. But after the concentrated, horrifying reminder of the wrongs human beings are capable of inflicting upon on another, the positive notes only extend so far.
Grade: A-minus. Rated R. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark
(Photo: Annapurna Pictures and Francois Duhamel)