“Detroit” is a punishment made with care and conscientiousness. A dramatization of events in the title city on the night of July 25, 1967, it is an attempt to re-enact the historical brutalization of a handful of characters, mostly black, to a mainstream audience, ostensibly mostly white, so that that audience viscerally understands the specific and systemic nature of American racism as it existed in 1967 and as it exists today.
Lines are drawn and connections are made. The intentions are pure. The results are enraging, often in accordance with the filmmakers’ hopes, sometimes against. Personally, I came out of “Detroit” angrier than I’ve been at a movie in ages, and not entirely the way director Kathryn Bigelow probably wants.
But that may have more to do with my — and possibly your — expectations of a movie called “Detroit” that is set in 1967. Perhaps you might ready yourself (as I did) for a historical diorama on the order of “Selma” (2015), a work that tries to keep in focus a broader civic disaster.
Instead, after an oddly clumsy animated opening that sketches in the history of The Great Migration from post-Reconstruction South to urban North and the ensuing postwar white flight from city to suburb, followed by a brilliantly calibrated 20 minutes that paints the Detroit riots as an explosion of a captive people’s fury, Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, zero in on the Algiers Motel.
If you know your history, maybe you know what happened there. (If not, “Detroit” doesn’t reveal until the end that we’re watching lightly fictionalized fact rather than straight fiction.) Mistakenly believing there was sniper fire coming from somewhere in the Algiers, three Detroit policemen rounded up nine unarmed inhabitants, most of them young, male, and black, and subjected them to hours of beatings and terror tactics. Two white women were there as well, which only stoked the flames further. At the end of the evening, three of the young men were dead of police gunshots. A jury ultimately acquitted the officers.
“Detroit” acknowledges the grinding wheels of the US justice system and the ways in which everyone who had a chance to stop the carnage — Michigan state police officers, National Guardsmen, and the Army are all on the scene at various points — all walk away from helping people they clearly see as less than human. But the three Detroit cops are the movie’s real devils. One’s an idiot (Jack Reynor), one (Ben O’Toole) is inflamed by the presence of white women among black men, and one, Officer Krauss, is a baby-faced sadist, reveling in the chance to go all in on a power trip. (All are fictionalized versions of the actual policemen.) The 24-year-old British actor Will Poulter (“Son of Rambo,” “The Revenant”) gives a mesmerizing performance as the slyly vicious Krauss; too young to have experienced evil, the character simply seems to have been born to it.
By contrast, his victims are sympathetic and blurrier. Earlier scenes have established Larry Reed (Algee Smith) as the soon-to-break-out talent of the vocal group the Dramatics — we see them warming up to follow Martha and the Vandellas at a local theater — and his agent and friend, Fred (Jacob Latimore), as the shyer of the two. Boal’s well-researched script has been based on interviews with Reed and others who were present, including Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”), a black security guard from a nearby store who was at the Algiers but powerless to intervene.
Dismukes’s kindness and concern — the way he tries to soften the edges of an intolerable situation — is one of the few subtle notes in “Detroit,” and Anthony Mackie finds a bitter, complicated nobility in the character of Greene, a US Marine just returned from Vietnam who lands at the center of an all-American hell. The cops are somehow convinced that Greene is pimping out the girls, who are portrayed by Hannah Murray (“Game of Thrones”) and Kaitlyn Dever as adventurous naifs, walking on a perceived “wild side” that has suddenly swallowed them whole.
That’s the place Bigelow would like to put her audience, too, with all the craft and controversy she brought to “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Hurt Locker,” and earlier, genre-based films like “Point Break.” (Ironically, much of “Detroit” was shot in and around Boston and Lawrence to take advantage of local tax incentives.) The director is a provocateur and a born filmmaker, with a gift for making the lurid seem essential. Her 1987 neo-vampire classic, “Near Dark,” has a legendary sequence of the undead holding a redneck bar hostage; “Detroit” feels like that scene expanded to two grueling hours.
To its credit, “Detroit” doesn’t hold out false hope; it’s a locked room. But neither does it allow white moviegoers the space to interrogate and implicate themselves, as “Get Out” — admittedly a very different kind of movie — did earlier this year. Those cops are bad mothers, easy to hate, easy to walk away from. And in showing a power balance so tragically out of whack, the movie denies the possibility of changing that imbalance and, more important, an abused people’s individual and collective will to do so.
It’s worth asking: Who’s the audience for this movie? Those who already know need little convincing — not when the evidence is there every day on our cellphones — while those who refuse to see will resist having their eyes pried open with such unforgiving force.
But that’s to suggest that every movie must have an audience or it shouldn’t be made, which is a stretch. So a more prickly question: Would a filmmaker of color have made a different “Detroit,” possibly a “better” “Detroit”? One in which the African-American kids led to slaughter seem as individualized, as magnetic as the white villains? This is tricky territory, because of course everybody deserves to make the movie they want to make. Of course all directors matter.
At the same time, not everybody in this country and this film industry gets a chance to tell their stories and see them open in more than 2,000 theaters. You don’t doubt Bigelow’s and Boal’s research, skill, or anger. But it’s worth pointing out that white artists of a certain level of privilege have the luxury of exploring — at worst, exploiting — a system of institutionalized injustice that other kinds of people negotiate every day, and that said negotiations may result in nuances of observation that come from living in and surviving that system as opposed to merely visiting it.
On the other hand: imagination. Empathy. The likelihood that this movie would not have been made otherwise. “Detroit” may be flawed in its bluntness and its inability to provide every character with an interior existence beyond villain and victim. But it remains inescapable in its conclusions about what happens when white authority collides with black life in America. If you still aren’t listening, here’s a place to start. Again.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Written by Mark Boal. Starring John Boyega, Algee Smith, Anthony Mackie, Will Poulter, Hannah Murray. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 142 minutes. R (strong violence, pervasive language).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.