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'Detroit' is the most powerful film of the summer

It is unsurprising that "Detroit" is the most important film of the movie summer.

The minute it was announced that Kathryn Bigelow — one of the greatest filmmakers — had chosen Detroit's 1967 riots for her next film after "The Hurt Locker" and "Zero Dark Thirty," she was already the target of hosannas and praised for her guts and perspicacity. The tragic subjects of cops, riots, killings and inner city neighborhoods just won't go away in America. (See Ralph Ellison's classic novel, "Invisible Man.")

The grip of the film for its first two hours — while we're watching the Detroit riots and a recreation of what came to be known as "The Algiers Motel Incident" (in which three died) — is total. You won't see more powerful filmmaking all summer. The final 20 minutes take place in court and afterward, but even so you are likely to leave the movie theater shaken by outrage, sorrow and lament for an America where the same things keep happening.

There is no action filmmaker in America more gifted at recreating a documentary texture. Nor is there one more gifted at putting pieces of action film together more excitingly. This has been true of Bigelow since the beginning. (See "Near Dark" and the lunatic "Point Break.")

But Bigelow is Bigelow. There is also no filmmaker who is more predictably disingenuous. I defer to few in my admiration for the films she makes but I've interviewed her and disingenuousness seems to be part of her makeup. There are always dubious Bigelow claims in any interview.

Director Kathryn Bigelow near where the Algiers Motel once stood in Detroit. (Brittany Greeson/The New York Times)

She has been quoted as saying of "Detroit" that all she wanted to do was tell the truth.

I don't doubt that. But anyone who believes that basic outrage didn't motivate that desire is naive at the very least.

What's important about that is this: The Algiers Motel incident at the heart of the film had to be reproduced by Bigelow and her screenwriter partner Mark Boal from several eyewitness accounts and interpolated stories.

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What we see onscreen for a long time is racist cruelty by Detroit cops so stupid and so extreme that it borders on caricature. In particular, its portrait of the baby-faced monster cop named Krauss (played by Will Poulter) is so vile that he's almost pure cinematic melodrama.

When we first see him in the film, he almost sounds like a peacekeeper in conversations with his partner. But when the riots begin from an after-hours club raid that goes wrong, his response to a looter running away from a grocery store with two full grocery bags is to shoot him in the back with his shotgun. He is then, incredibly, sent back out into the streets — after being told murder charges would be placed.

All hell is breaking loose on the streets. A couple of singing group members called The Dramatics take refuge in the Algiers Motel when they can't make it home. They meet some white girls and try to salvage something from a night when they were supposed to get their big break following Martha and the Vandellas — but didn't.

Anthony Mackie in "Detroit." (Francois Duhamel, Annapurna Pictures)

What happens, though, is that the girls lead them into a room where an angry joker named Carl wants to play games with his starter pistol (i.e., a pistol firing blanks to start races at track meets). When the streets are full of cops and national guardsmen on edge, nothing could possibly be more stupid.

What follows his games is a long portrayal of pseudo-military sadism and cruelty wherein Krauss and his accomplices brutalize everyone in the place to find the gun whose shots they heard.

I don't for a minute doubt the existence of cops as evil and racist as Krauss, just as I don't doubt fools as moronic as Carl living in neighborhoods everywhere. What was true in 1967 is true in 2017. But when you have already seen a cop shoot someone in the back and be returned to the streets, it's hard to keep doubt from growing with each passing atrocity he engineers.

The choice of such a baby-faced actor to play him is cunning but only underlines audience unease. Bigelow is no stranger to either cruelty onscreen or gratuitous, vile violence. (See "Blue Steel").

Krauss is a character who has escaped from the outrage of a filmmaker who can't keep her rage contained. I can't blame her. But I can't find her immaculately credible either.

"Detroit" is otherwise an almost entirely admirable and powerful film. Who could blame a filmmaker who has chosen this subject for being led astray?

The way something has been recreated here grabs you and won't let go. But that doesn't mean that when you leave the theater shaken by it that it's veracity that has done the shaking.



3.5 stars (out of four)

Starring John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Will Poulter and John Krasinski. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. 143 minutes. Rated R for brutal violence, cruelty and language.


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