The hallway of the Algiers Motel in Detroit, Michigan may become an infamous movie set, like The Overlook Hotel or Hannibal Lecter’s prison cell. The key difference is that the Algiers Motel is not fiction, and neither is the horror that unfolded there. Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow’s first film since Zero Dark Thirty, creates a feeling of unsparing dread and sustains it for what feels like a lifetime. Working again with screenwriter Mark Boal, the script offers a macro-scale approach to the key figures of the motel massacre. Race, inequality, and miscommunication are the key factors at play: Bigelow’s coiled direction lets us to see all the missteps that led to that hellish, miserable hallway. There are no apologies for what happened, on either side of the camera, yet clear-eyed understanding is little solace in the face of of profound, soul-wrenching anger.
Zero Dark Thirty begins in total blackness, while the soundtrack plays actual recordings of desperate 9/11 victims. Detroit goes in the complete opposite direction: there is an animated prologue, explaining how the twin factors of white flight and The Great Migration led to simmering racial tensions in 1967 Detroit. The film begins with cops breaking up an after-hours party; they are keenly aware how the perception of mass arrests can lead to outbreaks of violence. The opening captures the city’s mood, with a mix of exasperation and opportunity. Looting erodes morale, and police must be careful about which suspects they pursue. Will Poulter memorably plays one of the cops, an impulsive racist named Philip who looks like Sid from Toy Story, all grown up. In the first of many outrages, Philip shoots a black man in the back, is told he may face murder charges, then returns to the streets.
The opening includes fleeting attempts at normalcy. The Motown hopefuls The Dramatics are led by the smooth-talking Larry (Algee Smith), and he hunkers down at the Algiers after his breakout performance is canceled. Larry meets the other hotel guests, young black men and two white women, and they shoot the shit over a hazy summer night. Boal does not focus on any one character, and instead creates an uneasy sense of calm. It lasts until one of the men impulsively fires a starter pistol toward the nearby cops. Little does he know that the National Guard are stationed nearby, and they swarm the motel shortly after firing hundreds of rounds into the walls. Philip enters, kills the first man he sees, and plants a knife on him. The cops still need a suspect for the shooting – they believe it’s a sniper – so they take all the hotel guests and line them against a wall. Philip leads the agonizing, heartless interrogation, barking orders to his colleagues and National Guardsman along the way.
The Algiers interrogation is the lion’s share of the film’s two and half hour runtime. Bigelow and Boal are pitiless: they systemically dismantle any pretense of civil rights or humanity, creating a situation where more violence is the only alternative the cops have left. This interrogation is more suspenseful and disturbing than any thriller, since Boal’s script combines centuries systemic racism alongside the horror of being wrongly accused. Bigelow’s camera is constantly moving, with no wasted shots and an escalating sense of claustrophobia. Her shooting style matches the aesthetic of local news footage – she peppers the film with actual reports from the era – except her masterful editing also creates a complex, cohesive sense of space. Cops and victims alike move in and out the hallway. They all have limited information of what’s really happening, yet the true sense of danger is always clear.
As the interrogation continues into the night, all the characters attempt to find some degree of humanity. The cops are sadistic bullies, feigning camaraderie when no one is willing to talk. Some of the suspects are outraged, while others are so used to life in 1960s America that they take the path of least resistance. Anthony Mackie plays a war veteran who is found in a room, alone, with two white women, and he speaks in heartbreaking controlled tones. John Boyega has an even trickier role as Melvin, a security guard who assists the interrogation. Pulled in both directions and more sensitive to the dynamics at play, he helps whoever he can while looking for the tidiest solution possible. In the aftermath of the Algiers, homicide detectives bring in Melvin for questioning. His cool demeanor fades, leaving only frayed terror. All the actors in Detroit are effective, no matter how big or small the part, but Boyega finds tragedy with a moment so breathtaking and sudden that if you blink, you might miss it.
In its attempt to show the tragedy from all sides, Detroit runs into the fallacy of objectivity. The cops are the perpetrators, while the victims must literally pray they do not get shot, but lingering on the cops will invariably show they are not monsters. Boal sidesteps the problem, mostly, by showing the mistakes and the impasses that led to that hallway. The film does not forgive the cops – actions matter more than words – and yet there are strange, disarming flashes of dialogue that nearly erase the authenticity. One white cop sees a bloody black man, and remarks, “How could anyone do such a thing?” It rings hollow, almost like Boal wants to “Not All Men” the police, so the scene inspired some (deserved) rueful laughter. A generous interpretation is that the angels and devils of Detroit’s police force are random, to the point where dumb luck is only governing principle now that injustice is more likely than due process.
Bigelow is no stranger depicting an urban powder keg. Among other things, the little seen Strange Days envisions a Los Angeles on the cusp of implosion. Detroit is more ambitious, abandoning Bigelow’s longtime embrace of genre. It cuts to the marrow: this film is what happens when a top filmmaker uses all her gifts to find the common thread between institutional power, personal failure, and the hellish loss of reason. No one from that night may ever know peace, not even the corrupt killers, but at least this film has the necessary power, curiosity, and empathy to consider why.