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Detroit, about one of the biggest riots in US history, is hard to watch. That’s a good thing.

Kathryn Bigelow's new movie is part docudrama, part horror film.

Anthony Mackie stands against a wall, blood dripping down his temple, in Detroit
Anthony Mackie in Detroit
Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Kathryn Bigelow has said she likes “high-impact, high-velocity moviemaking.” And it shows in the director’s filmography, which has tackled everything from modern warfare dramas (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) to a surfer crime thriller (Point Break) to a vampire Western (Near Dark). One thing’s for certain when you watch a Bigelow movie: Your heart will be racing.

Detroit — a historical horror film with docudrama bumpers — is no exception. It’s a jarring movie that wants to make everyone who watches it angry, though for different reasons. Some will likely ding it for dialogue that feels too on the nose, too much like the statements about race and police force that we bandy about today; others might take issue with how the movie imagines real-life events without knowing with 100 percent certainty what happened.

On the other hand, that’s what all historical movies have to do. And Mark Boal, Bigelow’s collaborator on this film as well as The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, works not just from a screenwriter’s toolbox but also a journalist’s, with a career writing for publications like Rolling Stone and The Village Voice before he moved over to Hollywood. So though no official account of what happened one night at Detroit’s Algiers Motel during the 1967 Detroit riots has been established, the film works from eyewitness recollections and accounts to recreate a version of the events that at least feels true to life.

As such, plenty of people will also leave Detroit angry because of the injustices it chronicles, and perhaps even more because so little seems to have changed in the half-century since. Detroit doesn’t paint all police or all white people as uniform caricatures of badness, nor does it patronizingly suggest that all black people are innocents. But it’s not interested in excusing anyone, either. Its goal is to make us into witnesses and bystanders — to put us into the shoes of those who stand by and watch, feeling helpless even when we’re not — something it achieves through confident, pulsating filmmaking and emotional performances.

That is why Detroit, however distressing it may be, is still important to watch: it seeks to make viewers understand a pivotal moment within a larger true story — one that is far from over.

Detroit changes modes from docudrama to home-invasion horror and back again

The film starts (rather unexpectedly) with text over oil paintings that explain, succinctly and powerfully, the migration of African-Americans after slavery to the north, in search of work and a more equal society — only to be met with racism, restrictive housing practices, and “white flight” to the suburbs, all of which, as the subtitles tell us, led to heightened racial tensions by 1967.

Algee Smith on stage in Detroit
Algee Smith in Detroit
Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures

Then it morphs into a re-creation of how the riots — some of the biggest in American history — got started: police raided an unlicensed club in the black part of town, and tensions in the street erupted into looting and violence that lasted for days. We see the first few days of this and the police force’s efforts to contain the violence, with one young white cop named Krauss (Will Poulter) shooting a fleeing man from the back and, after pleading self-defense, getting a stern warning from his superior down at the precinct.

Detroit makes clear how hard it is for the police to figure out how to handle the situation, especially the younger and jumpier officers who see black people — and black men in particular — not as fellow citizens but as “them.” This prevailing sense of otherness, obvious to the black characters but barely noticeable to even the white characters who believe themselves to not be racist, is everywhere in Detroit: in a theater where white folks sit listening to black Motown groups; in a motel where two white young women seem to think they’re just sowing some wild oats by hanging out with young black men; in the language of police officers who tell a friendly black security officer named Dismukes (John Boyega) that he’s “a solid guy”; and in the precinct, where young officers tell one another that “one mistake” shouldn’t ruin their lives.

One Motown group is about to go on stage when the police order the crowd to go home, responding to public safety concerns related to the ongoing riots — about which the people in the theater seem oddly unconcerned, perhaps because it’s in the “other” part of town. Two of the young men from the Motown group, Fred (Jacob Latimore) and Larry (Algee Smith), head over to the Algiers to hole up, and wind up hanging out with a group of young people who’ve also checked into the hotel’s annex. The group is mostly young black men, but includes two young white women from Ohio (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever), who eventually migrate to hanging out with an Army vet (Anthony Mackie) just returned from his second tour of duty.

But then someone decides it would be funny to shoot a toy gun toward where the police have set up their operation. They come running, and bring the National Guard with them.

What follows is a dynamic, extraordinary extended scene in which the police who arrive — Krauss and two partners, Demens (Jack Reynor) and Flynn (Ben O'Toole) — begin interrogating the inhabitants of the annex, lining them up against the wall and playing a “game” with them, ostensibly to get them to confess to who shot the gun and where it was hidden. It’s a brutal, heart-pounding stretch that feels most like home invasion horror, with Krauss as the sadistic, conscience-free aggressor, and no means of escape for his victims.

What makes Krauss even more frightening (and real) is that he manages to bully or frighten others into his cause by sheer conviction that he’s in the right. These guys hanging onto the wall and praying for salvation, he tells them, might not have actually shot this gun, but they’ve probably committed some kind of crime, and better to induce order through fear than not at all, right?

Detroit’s centerpiece is a blistering scene based on real events

Bigelow’s preference for “high-impact, high-velocity moviemaking” is on full display in the interrogation sequence, and while it is uncomfortable, it’s also totally necessary to the story the film is telling.

An important component of what happened at the Algiers Motel is those who stood by with the power to stop it, but abdicated that position to those who had no interest in letting up. Not stopping violence against someone when you have the power to do so is as much an admission that you think of their humanity as less than yours as actually enacting that violence.

John Boyega in Detroit
John Boyega in Detroit
Francois Duhamel/Annapurna Pictures

The way Bigelow films this sequence all but invites viewers to jump through the screen and make it stop, and to reckon with the fact that they can’t. Shaky, handheld camera work coupled with stark lighting and close shots of faces smeared by tears and sweat brings the audience right into the action. You can’t sit at a remove from Detroit. You are forced to sit in that hallway and be witness to the action.

Once that scene finally concludes, the film returns to docudrama mode, mostly in court (with John Krasinski as the police union’s lawyer), so we can find out what happened in the aftermath. But it also focuses on the traumatic after-effects of having your life invaded and your dignity roundly degraded. Detroit isn’t glib about either of these things, which takes it past ordinary horror filmmaking and back into the realm of something like social realism.

Detroit skillfully spreads its critique across a whole set of institutional rails on which injustice can run. It doesn’t try to excuse the looters and the violence, and it soundly condemns the powerful who apply a different set of standards to themselves than to others. But like Get Out, the film also vividly paints the kinds of racist thinking that are less violent, but also enable more aggressive actions.

So if the imagined dialogue seems sometimes pointedly drawn from 2017’s discourse on racism and police violence, it’s likely on purpose; it’s not as if the way people talk about race has changed as substantially as we might like. Individual people engage in racist thinking and violent behavior, but cultures exist at the intersection of people, ideas, institutions. You can’t divorce them from one another. And Detroit won’t let us forget this.

Detroit doesn’t let its characters off the hook, or its viewers

Throughout the film, the most complex and troubling character is Boyega’s Dismukes, a black security officer who initially places himself on the side of the police in an effort to defuse the situation and protect other black civilians from being unduly targeted. But as he watches, participates, and later realizes just what his role was in the proceedings, he grows increasingly sickened by it all.

Boyega’s fine performance telegraphs most of Dismukes’s growing dismay through his eyes, as he slowly realizes the system he counted on to treat everyone equally under the law simply isn’t going to do so. And that’s mirrored in Raynor’s performance, as an officer drawn into taking actions he’d never have otherwise because a colleague insisted it was necessary.

Meanwhile, most of the other officers depicted in the film are sickened and even outraged by the racist actions of their fellow officers. But they — and Michigan state troopers, and members of the National Guard — are reticent to take too much action to curtail them, and thus embroil themselves in that “civil rights stuff.”

A scene with a burning car from Detroit
A scene from Detroit
Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures

But what would they have done differently? What would any of us? And how do we know for certain? It’s easy to say that we would act differently, as we might watching a film about Nazi Germany, or any historic human-on-human violence. In the heat of the moment, though, have we constructed the ethical apparatus to stand against an unjust action happening right before our eyes? Or would we say we want no part of this, and slip out the back door?

The reason films like Detroit are important isn’t just because they remind us that the more things change, the more they stay the same; it’s because watching them forces us to tread moral ground alongside the characters. If we’re willing, they give us the mental and emotional space — in a relatively low-stakes environment for us — to think through what we’re seeing on screen, measure our own reactions, and examine the reasons for them.

Participating in those exercises by suspending our egos and watching well-made movies like Detroit, which gives us a place to sit and shut up and just watch, is, I think, one of the most important morally formative things we can do in a world increasingly marked by low-stakes Twitter proclamations of what’s right and what’s wrong. And if we’re not willing to do that — even at the risk of being made uncomfortable — we may have to take a long look at ourselves and wonder why.

We all think we’re the good guy. I think I’m the good guy. But then I remember: So does everyone else.

Detroit is currently playing in limited theaters and opens wide on August 4.

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