This is not to say that Bigelow’s filmmaking is entirely misguided. She does an ample job at throwing us straight into the tension of 1960s Detroit between the white police force and the poor black residents. We see real news reports, the hateful speech in the street, the chaotic rioting and the military called in with itchy trigger fingers for combatting snipers. When a black politician urges the black residents not to destroy their community, they respond with hurled bottles and rocks, shouting at the top of their lungs to burn it all down.
On the opposite end of the racial lines, the cops are just as angry and fearful to resort to gunning down unarmed looters in the street. Will Poulter plays officer Philip Krauss as a man who thinks so little of the black community he hardly remembers killing them, reasoning his kills as just part of being in a warzone. Somewhere in the middle of this controversy is security officer Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) and an army soldier that do their best to keep their heads low in tough situations. They’ll be forced into taking a stance, however, when the ugliness of the situation becomes unbearable.
The story centers on the true and perplexing incident at the Algiers Motel, where law enforcement interrogated and shot dead black men for being suspected of being a sniper. Of those suspects are two members of a motown singing group, two white women indulging in the civil movement and an honorably discharged black veteran (Anthony Mackie). They’re all in the dark about the playful firing of a starter pistol that triggered a raid, but that doesn’t matter to Krauss to crush and kill some dark skinned men for a confession.
It’s easy enough to tell when Bigelow is filling in the gaps of this story that are all-too-present in the films staggering second act of the motel. Her direction attempts to punch the viewer in the face with its vulgar nature of racism and violence, but keeps punching until its own knuckles are bruised and bloodied to the point of beating us with nubs. The scenes inside the motel are drawn out so long that the suspects had to be tired of cowering and the cops tired of saying the N-word.
When two of the suspects find an opening, they attempt to make an escape through the motel basement, but end up right back where they started. This event may have actually went down in this scenario, but it’s directed in the tone of a trapped-in-the-house horror movie. This would be fitting for that genre, but feels strangely off in a picture that wants us to focus on the fearful and graphic racial tension.
Where Detroit works best is when it focuses on everything outside the centerpiece, as with the atmosphere of the riots in the streets and the courtroom case that turns apathetic black men into shivering and quaking figures of alarm. But most of what Bigelow showcases is surface-level material that never digs deeper and retreats to easy moments of defining character. John Boyega does a solid job at portraying a conflicted individual of the law, but his major moment of being sickened by the justice system comes with a blunt scene of him puking in the bushes. Will Poulter plays a savagely evil racist cop, but portrays the real police man without deeper examination past his cartoonish bigotry so that he may as well be a fictional character.