But she doesn’t. Working from a screenplay by her customary collaborator, Mark Boal, Bigelow instead quickly narrows her focus to a single building on the night of July 25th. The building is a detached house that served as an “annex” to the black-owned Algiers Motel. On the night in question, 10 black men and two white women were in the annex when nearby Guardsmen believed a sniper had fired on them from one of the windows. Along with Detroit police and state troopers, they shot out windows and then stormed the building. By the end of the night, three of the residents—all black men—would be shot dead, and the remainder beaten and humiliated.
Detroit is a powerful, harrowing film. Insofar as it seeks to place viewers in the shoes of its helpless, terrified victims of police brutality, it succeeds to an almost unbearable degree. But that is a strangely narrow ambition for a filmmaker of Bigelow’s gifts, not to mention a film whose title encompasses an entire city. What is missing is not merely scope, but nuance: Zero Dark Thirty and Bigelow’s earlier The Hurt Locker conveyed not merely the conflict between characters but also that within them. Detroit, by contrast, is purely a story of villains and victims, a horror movie made all the more horrible by the fact that it is true.
Inevitably, accounts vary concerning precisely what took place in the Algiers Motel annex that night. (John Hersey wrote a 1968 book trying to reckon with these inconsistencies called The Algiers Motel Incident.) Bigelow and Boal have done their best to recount the events as accurately as possible, but unlike Hersey they have to pick one story and stick with it. And the story they choose, though chilling and intense, is disappointingly one-dimensional in its portrayal of both the Algiers Motel residents and their police assailants. (In order to clarify the choices the filmmakers made, I will describe some of the historic and cinematic details; those concerned about mild spoilers, be advised.)
The apparent “sniper fire” was one resident fooling around harmlessly with a starter pistol. Although he was shot almost immediately after authorities stormed the building, the pistol was never recovered. Police then rounded up the remaining residents in a ground-floor hallway, among them a returning vet (the excellent Anthony Mackie), a doo-wop singer (Jacob Latimore), and the two party-seeking young women (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever). When the Guardsmen and state troopers leave the scene—the latter, sensing trouble, don’t want to “get involved in any civil-rights incident”—the residents are left at the mercy of three Detroit policemen. They are all, like the vast majority of the force at the time, white.
Two of the cops (played by Ben O’Toole and Jack Reynor) are clearly racist and comfortable with the use of violent force on civilians, in particular black ones. But the third (Will Poulter) is a sociopath out of central casting, right down to the Mephistophelean tilt of his eyebrows. Lest we have any doubt on this score, he is the same baby-faced officer whom we saw kill a looter without remorse earlier in the film. He is insistent that he will not leave the premises until a shooter is identified and the gun recovered. To this end, he and his partners line the residents up facing the walls of the hallway and proceed to use every brutal tool at their disposal: beatings, murder threats, mock executions, and ultimately (if, in Bigelow and Boal’s telling, somewhat accidentally), actual killings.