In July 1967, searing race riots shook Detroit, as law enforcement sparred with black citizens in the city’s suburbs. One of the more notable chapters from the five days of chaos and carnage happened at the Algiers Motel. Racist police officers, believing a sniper was firing on the roof with wanton glee, stormed the motel to interrogate those present and find the assassin. The results were predictably bloody. The new historical drama from director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal probes this perilous incident.

Detroit’s middle hour is a masterful contained thriller that rarely moves away from the confrontation at the Algiers. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (Jason Bourne) shoots much of this prolonged set piece in grainy close-ups, letting the traumatized expressions of the witnesses speak to the unspeakable horror. One becomes so oriented to the motel hallway space that when close-ups become more constant, Bigelow doesn’t need to provide reaction shots. We know what the characters are seeing and can more keenly understand their responses. At the same time, with a musical score largely absent, a harsh, pounding sound mix – of gunshots, baton whips, and other fierce methods of maiming happening outside the frame – creates a stomach-churning experience.

However, outside of this viscerally unnerving centrepiece, Detroit is haphazard. The context for the riots is unclearly outlined, and Boal relies too much on televised news reports to keep viewers updated. Bigelow even opens the film with images from artist Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series to illuminate details from 20th century American history, but the paintings are clumsily used and the onscreen text is simplistic. The first 30 minutes jumps around between so many supporting characters, it is hard to get attached to many of these real-life figures (or composite creations).

That is most telling with Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a black security guard who had an intriguing lens through which to view the bubbling tensions. Sadly, the drama doesn’t provide Dismukes with enough screen time, despite Boyega’s top billing and acting capabilities. The same is true for other black characters present at the Algiers, such as Vietnam vet Robert Greene (Anthony Mackie). One would trade the sequences with the domineering racist cops (led by Will Poulter’s Krauss) to spend more time with those bearing witness.

The affecting emotional centre of the film is a brotherly relationship between two black men, Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) and musician Larry Reed (Algee Smith) The men evade the noise in the streets to lay low and meet girls at the motel, but end up in the midst of horrifying police brutality. Their dramatic arcs are affecting. On the other hand, much of Bigelow’s film abandons too many supporting characters with important perspectives of that fateful evening. That filmmaker has made a career of studying masculinity onscreen. Here, she shows an interest in the disturbing bonding tactics of the young white police officers, as well as the systems of command that confirm their power over black men. Nevertheless, one wishes these nuanced ideas and compelling characters hadn’t been rushed through. Detroit is the rare 143-minute movie that feels too slight.

Is Detroit Essential Viewing?

Just barely. A tense, disquieting middle hour elevates the wildly uneven drama. One should be aware of the exceptional amount of unsettling and brutal violence, with most of it inflicted on helpless black bodies, in the film.

Detroit opens Friday, August 4, 2017 at Cineplex locations. Check their website for more information.

Detroit Trailer