This must be acknowledged up front: Detroit is a movie steeped in black American history, starring a whole bunch of mostly male black actors -- directed by a white woman, which is a bit of a mystery. Black directors do exist; it could not possibly have been difficult to find one to tell this story; one is left to wonder what different choices might have been made with one -- of either gender.
But, okay: let's say we have no idea who directed Detroit. It's an objectively impressive film. It's just as relevant, however, that I say that as a white guy writing this review, so take that however you feel is appropriate.
The story starts with a fairly long stretch of the chaos that made up the 1967 riots in the city of the title, taking a macro view of longstanding racial unrest. Then the focus narrows, organically, to a single incident in the Algiers Motel, where three white Detroit Police officers terrorized several black men, and two young white women, and killed three of the young men. They were there, ostensibly, to investigate what they thought was sniper fire, depicted here as a black man deliberately shooting a starter pistol toward nearby cops embroiled in the riots, just to stir up trouble.
None of Detroit is particularly easy to watch, which is as it should be. The scenario and the history and the details are all complicated, but it all still comes down to a mostly-white police force, as stated in the opening titles, "known for its aggression." The film spends a great deal of time on the incident at the motel, with the cops lining several occupants against a wall and demanding to know who had a gun. Several of the people being questioned were not even in the same room from which the starter pistol was fired, but when they say they know nothing about any gun, the cops are convinced they are lying.
All of this is both preceded and followed by what we are clearly to understand is murder by the police. I almost feel bad for Will Poulter, who plays the ring leader of these three cops; he plays him so well that it's easy to hate him.
This is quite the ensemble cast, which leaves Detroit without any star. This is not the kind of story that demands one anyway, as the focus is rightly on the events themselves. Some familiar faces do pop up: John Boyega as a security guard working nearby who predictably winds up a suspect; John Krasinski as the cops' defense lawyer. Most of the rest of the cast is not as familiar, but across the board the performances are solid. If anyone deserves to be singled out, it's Algee Smith, as the lead singer of a group of musicians who happened to be at the motel. He gets more screen time than most and he serves it well.
And what this ensemble does, as a team, is present America with some hard truths. A lot of what goes on in this movie, you could do nothing more than update the hairstyles and fashions, and it could be set in the present day. It's not long before you realize that Detroit is reflecting a shameful American tradition of police being acquitted for shooting and killing unarmed black people.
Every incident is different, with its own unique set of circumstances, and here director Kathryn Bigelow focusing on just this one case. But it's also one of the earliest high-profile cases that long ago established a disturbing trend, where they all end in the same way: known killers escaping punishment.
If you think a movie like 12 Years a Slave provides an easy out by focusing on one guy who got a happy ending after years of hardship rather than on the countless more who lived entirely hopeless lives under the existential threat of oppressors, then Detroit might be the movie for you. This story features characters who find some level of peace only through death or resignation, the sacrifice of hope and dreams, resilience in the face of unchanging injustice.
These things are precisely why Detroit needs to be seen. It's hard to imagine many people wanting to see it, for wildly varying reasons depending on the viewer's on socioeconomic background. Usually a movie like this goes out of its way to leave audiences with a sense of uplift or inspiration, and this one merely hints at it, until veering back to a specific event that in hindsight represents the lasting effects of institutionalized racism to this day. America is in desperate need of taking a hard look at itself, and here is a movie doing its part.
Well, it may be difficult to watch, but it's also almost impossible to look away. That's how skillfully assembled this movie is. As soon as it starts, you know nothing good is coming, but you still most know what it will be. The trick will be getting people to turn their gaze on it to begin with. To say you'll be glad you did wouldn't be quite accurate, but there is a certain satisfaction in something that is compelling and provocative in the right ways.