This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Andrew Buckley’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
50 years ago, race relations in the United States were undergoing what could be deemed a turbulent transitionary period; although the Civil Rights Movement had arguably achieved its greatest victory a few years earlier with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a law that dealt a significant blow to legalized discrimination nationwide, there was plenty of unofficial discrimination to be had, whether it be a lack of decent employment (or any unemployment at all), overcrowded, racially segregated neighborhoods, or local police forces made up of almost entirely white, often prejudiced officers who regularly went unpunished for exploiting and using brutal, excessive force against local African-American communities.
These conditions turned dozens of cities nationwide into barely-contained powderkegs, powderkegs which blew up all across the country during what is now known as The Long Hot Summer of '67, resulting in over 100 riots occuring across the US, the biggest of which took place in Detroit from July 23rd to the 27th of that year, resulting in hundreds of injuries and arrests, thousands of buildings destroyed, millions of dollars in property damage, and the deaths of 43 people. To this day, it is still the 3rd biggest riot in US history, only surpassed by the New York Draft Riot of 1863, and the Los Angeles/Rodney King Riot of '92.
Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit is the story of this riot, although it's less about the general riot than you may expect, and more about the "Algiers Motel Incident" which occured in the middle of it all, and how this incident led to officers of the Detroit PD murdering three of their fellow citizens in cold blood. Of course, we get some background on the particularly egregious living conditions facing black Detroiters at that time (in a daring, but still aesthetically incongruous animated intro), we get to witness the early-morning police raid of a mostly-black, unlicensed speakeasy that ended up serving served riot's inciting incident, and we're introduced to a number of characters who later end up playing a part in the film's central incident, but unfortunately, it feels as though Bigelow's directorial heart wasn't quite as much into this 1st act of the film as it should've been.
A few too many of the film's early scenes feel as though they were treated as being just perfunctory, with the shots of rioting locals serving as rather small and underwhelming visually, failing to give us a sufficiently memorable portrayal of the Hell on Earth that visited the Motor City during those sweltering July days. In addition, the characters' dialogue was occasionally pretty clunky and unnatural in its nakedly expository manner, and finally, the film's denouement of the aftermath of the Algiers incident, while necessary, still went on for just slightly too long, taking out some of the punch Detroit managed to pack through its ever so important middle act.
However, Bigelow still portrays the incident at the motel with an unceasingly raw, intimate intensity, and this section of the film is what ends up redeeming the whole shebang and then some, even considering its various flaws. The horror begins when an occupant of the motel, a young man named Carl, decides to scare a nearby group of National Guardsmen by firing a harmless starter pistol in their direction. Naturally, in the midst of an ongoing city-wise riot, the Guardsmen can't know that this prank isn't coming from a legitimate sniper in the area, and so, after indiscriminately opening fire on the motel (killing Carl), they, along with a contingent of responding Detroit PD officers (the defacto leader of whom, Officer Phillip Krauss, was still on the streets even while facing murder charges for shooting a fleeing, unarmed citizen in the back earlier that day), storm inside, round every single ocupant up and lead them down into the main foyer of the building, and face them up against the wall during an extended, impormptu group "interrogation", in search of a shooter who doesn't even exist.
It's during this middle 3rd of the film that Bigelow's direction really hits its stride, crafting an unbearably tense and scary situation, with an intensity to rival even that of the nail-biting compound raid climax from 2012's superb Zero Dark Thirty. With Carl's fresh corpse lying right next to them in the dining room, the various tenants of the motel find themselves being held for what seems like an eternity up against a wall, simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as the crazed local policemen periodically throw racial slurs, browbeatings, and actual beatings their way, eventually taking a couple of them aside one at a time behind the closed doors of the motel rooms for a "game" of psychologically-devastating mock executions (which inevitably turns into real executions before the night's end), hoping to get someone in the group to tell them the location of a gun they're determined to believe must be there, no matter what.
The "interrogations" also end up being unfortunately tailored by race and sex, as, while the two white women taking refuge at the Algiers are spared any sort of physical beating, due to the officers' grossly misplaced sense of white chivalry, they're still subject to various other denigrations, such as assumptions that the only reason they're at that motel is to be whored out by a black "pimp" they were initially discovered with (a pimp who turns out to be an Army vet home from Vietnam, trading one warzone for another), or the threat of a shotgun slowly being placed between their legs in order to lift the hems of their dresses, or one officer coming this close to raping one of them when he rips off her clothes in a fit of rage.
From start to finish, the entire sequence is a grueling nightmare of tension, dragging on and on in the best cinematic sense of the word, and if the entire film was as impressive as this segment, we would be looking at another overall modern masterpiece from a resurging Bigelow. Unfortunately, Detroit proves a bit unable to sustain this level of quality afterwards, although there's still certainly good material after this point regardless; we get to witness both the personal and legal aftermaths of the incident, as the officers put on trial end up being found "not guilty" by an all-white jury for their despicable actions, while a young Motown singer who lost his friend at the motel finds himself unable to move on with his once-promising career, and accept a record deal with a major label, due to the lingering trauma that the incident leaves with him.
However, although Bigelow can't ignore the central miscarriage of justice that Detroit ends with, nor does she try to shoehorn in some message that, in the ensuing half a century since the riot, the national, racial wounds that lead to the riot have somehow finally healed and ceased to fester (because, in the wake of Charlottesville, it's incredibly obvious that they haven't), she still manages to slip in little moments of hope here and there, showing that, even the wake of such absolute horror, life still manages to goes on anyway, somehow... someway.
Final Score: 8