Detroit Is an Important but Flawed Look at American History

Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit tells a story that needs to be told, one adapted from real-life events that happened 50 years ago but still have a piercing resonance today. In Detroit on the night of July 25, 1967—some 48 hours after rioting broke out on the city, following a police raid on an after-hours club—three black teenagers were killed at the Algiers Motel at the hands of white police officers. During the incident, nine other people, including two white women, were detained and terrorized by those policemen.

Detroit focuses on that story, dramatizing it in harrowing detail. At the time of the riots, and of the Algiers Motel incident, reporters covering the story—Bigelow includes TV news clips from the time—expressed disbelief that such intense, desperate violence could break out on American streets. What’s most horrifying about seeing and hearing those snippets of vintage news reports is that in 2017, that kind of violence and distrust doesn’t seem surprising at all.

But if Detroit—written by Mark Boal, who has also made two other pictures with Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker—is a well-intentioned picture, it’s also a flawed one. This is filmmaking that sets out to make its points but fails, in big ways and small ones, to forge an emotional connection with most of its characters. In a strange way, it’s more fixated on the white cops, Krauss (Will Poulter) and Flynn (Ben O’Toole)—their characters are stand-ins for the real-life cops in the Algiers Motel case, Ronald August and Robert Paille—who figure prominently in the film’s extended, excruciating centerpiece.

In that sequence, the police officers, as well as several National Guardsmen and members of the Michigan State Police, storm the motel in response to what they believe is sniper fire coming from one of the rooms. They forcibly round up the hotel’s inhabitants and guests—among them a Vietnam veteran named Greene (Anthony Mackie), hotel resident Carl (Jason…

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