The easy way to describe Detroit is that even though the film is about events from July 25, 1967, it’s also clearly about events that have been in the headlines—police brutality, racial injustice, and the difficulty in (and perhaps impossibility of) resolving these tensions. And yet to simply say that Detroit is about “right now” is to miss its larger point that this conflict has been going on for centuries. It may be making headlines and blowing up social media these days, but it’s an issue we’ve refused to confront, and for white people it’s been far too easy to dismiss. Although the film is hard to watch as police officers cruelly assault black people, it demands to be seen, experienced, and endured rather than the tweet or the one-off news story we can quickly flip past.
After a brief and beautifully illustrated prologue explaining the great migration and white flight, we’re dropped into the beginning of the 1967 Detroit riots. However, rather than catalog the entirety of the riots and the various factors at play, the movie uses that as a springboard to get to the central story, which happens at the Algiers Motel. When Carl (Jason Mitchell) shoots a starter pistol out the window, local cops led by Patrolman Krauss (Will Poulter) and National Guard soldiers led by Warrant Officer Roberts (Austin Hébert) storm the house near the motel, bringing in Carl, his friends, as well as people who weren’t involved like friends Larry (Algee Smith) and Fred (Jacob Latimore) and young women Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) who were hanging out with recently returned Vietnam veteran Greene (Anthony Mackie). Local security guard Dismukes (John Boyega) comes along to try and diffuse the situation as much as possible, but he discovers that the cops are unrelenting in their cruelty and racism.
Director Kathryn Bigelow, who has recently created spins on the war movie with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, continues that trend with Detroit. Although history declares the event as a “riot”, Bigelow depicts as a conflict between two factions, with Detroit looking more like an occupied city rather than a thriving American metropolis. The conflict comes about because despite Detroit having an overwhelmingly black population, the police force is primarily white, and that force sees their job as keeping order at any cost. For Krauss, when he shoots a fleeing black suspect in the back, he makes excuses later. He doesn’t feel ashamed or guilty. He immediately fills in the blanks—“Oh, if he was running, he must have had something to hide.” It’s a theory of policing that says the only way to restore peace is through force, which is the same theory that exists in warzones.
While the warzone approach occupies the first act of the movie, once we get into the house near the Algiers and the cops are doing their interrogation is where the film gets even more disturbing. Some will argue that the second act goes on for too long, but that’s the point. If you think an hour in a movie is a tough, imagine that this is life for you. Imagine constantly being harassed by cops who don’t see you as human and who impose their twisted morality above legality. As one angry protester shouts later in the film, “This never would have happened if a bunch of white men had been discovered with black girls,” but because it’s black men with white girls, the situation escalates due to the cops’ racism.