Detroit is not for the faint of heart. Kathryn Bigelow throws us directly into the 1967 Detroit riots to fend for ourselves amid a sickening onslaught of racially motivated violence and hatred. It's genuinely hard to watch. But the portrayal of law enforcement's gross, inhumane treatment of black people, which disturbingly resonates in America today, must be seen.
Shot by Barry Ackroyd in a powerful docudrama style, the film careens through three acts. The first establishes an almost war-torn city. The second is concerned with the abuse and torture of seven black men by three white cops, which took place in the Algiers Motel. Three of the unarmed, innocent black men are murdered in cold blood, leading us into the final act: the trial.
Enter a poorly cast John Krasinski (Jim from The Office), who kicks off an emotionally misfiring third act with his distracting stardom. He certainly lacks the gravity for a scene in which all the murdering authorities get off scot-free, leaving us queasy.
Make no mistake, this is a war film—the third in a thematic trilogy from Bigelow—and it retains the director's insistence on finding fresh perspectives in the heat of battle. It just does so on a smaller scale. But its scope is wider than usual, to a fault. Against a backdrop of international warfare, The Hurt Locker focused on a dissident bomb-squad sergeant, while Zero Dark Thirty zoomed in on the tactical prowess of a CIA operative.
But Detroit is so dispersed that characters who should be central slip through the cracks. Screenwriter Mark Boal distances us from the characters so much that it becomes glaringly obvious in the third act, when the names of the murdered still aren't familiar. Still, the film stings when we think of trials like those of the officer who killed Philando Castile, reminding us that legally sanctioned racism persists in insidious forms.