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film Us Vs. Them In A City On Fire: Detroit, 1967

Kathryn Bigelow's film about 1967 Detroit riots grapples with a harsh legacy of racism in America.

A scene from Kathryn Bigelow’s film drama “Detroit,” set during the 1967 riots in that city.,Francois Duhamel/Annapurna Pictures

[Watch the movie trailer here -- moderator.]

Racial slurs fly fast and furious in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” but the most troubling and divisive words uttered onscreen are variations on the simple pronouns “they” and “them.” The words may be perfectly neutral in themselves, but when used to separate one group of people from another they take on an insidious, implicitly violent connotation.

“Detroit” is set mainly during the rioting that convulsed that city in the summer of 1967, and in it “them” is most often used — along with cognates like “those people” and “you people” — by white soldiers and police officers to refer to African-American citizens. (Nearly every white character with a speaking role wears a uniform of some kind.) Occasionally things go in the other direction, with “they” referring to the white authorities, but the reversal doesn’t indicate any kind of symmetry.

The movie, which paints a sometimes muddled picture of a chaotic and contested moment in history, is admirably clear in this regard. It understands and strives to dramatize racism not as a matter of bad personal attitudes or equal and opposite prejudices, but rather as a structuring fact of American life, an apparatus of power, exclusion and control wielded against “them.”

Ms. Bigelow and Mark Boal, the screenwriter (who collaborated with her on “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty”), train their focus on two aspects of the Detroit story: the day-to-day texture of working-class black life and the operations of white supremacy in conditions of emergency. Balancing those concerns is no easy task, and the filmmakers don’t take an easy route through their material. “Detroit,” like its namesake city, is populous and contradictory, with dozens of significant characters competing for attention as richly detailed scenes swell in crescendos of desperate suspense and sickening brutality.

At moments (the quietest as well as some of the most intense), you feel in tune with both the fine grain of experience and the larger sweep of history. The specific, close-up acts of cruelty you witness are comprehensible as manifestations of a systemic, continuing and frequently invisible pattern of injustice. The film’s struggle against simplification — against the sentimentality, wishful thinking and outright denial that defines most Hollywood considerations of America’s racial past — is palpable, almost heroic, even if it is not always successful.

Early scenes — following a gorgeous animated prologue that uses Jacob Lawrence paintings to evoke the decades of job discrimination, residential segregation and heavy-handed law enforcement that preceded the 1967 riots in Detroit and other Northern cities — zero in on the rebellion’s immediate cause: a late-night police raid on an unlicensed saloon.

The opening 20 minutes register Ms. Bigelow’s virtuosity as a choreographer of chaos. She illuminates volatile and unpredictable circumstances with amazing poise and precision, producing an intuitive understanding of events that quickly spiral beyond the control or comprehension of their participants. Her combination of efficiency and expressiveness is matched by the actors — a formidable, mostly youthful ensemble including John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith and Jason Mitchell — even though the script at times inhibits their range, locking them into simple stances of aggression and fear.

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Amid the fire and looting and the audio and video clips of the Michigan governor George W. Romney and President Lyndon B. Johnson, a narrower plot takes shape, a real-life horror movie folded into a baggier film that feels, by turns, like a combat picture, a cavalry western, a police procedural and a courtroom drama.

The fates of a collection of black and white Detroiters (as well as two unlucky visitors from Ohio) converge at a motel on the west side of the city. Two friends, Fred (Jacob Latimore) and Larry (Mr. Smith), are looking for a little fun after a disappointing evening at the Fox Theater downtown. They flirt with Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) and Julie (Hannah Murray), two white women, and join a makeshift party in a room belonging to Carl Cooper (Mr. Mitchell).

Down the hall is Greene (Anthony Mackie), a soldier just back from Vietnam. A few blocks away, Melvin Dismukes (Mr. Boyega), a black security guard protecting a grocery store, brings coffee to a group of National Guardsmen, a gesture of diplomacy as well as self-protection. “I don’t want those boys shooting at us,” he tells his co-worker. Meanwhile, three patrolmen cruise the city. One of them, Krauss (Mr. Poulter), is still on the job after fatally shooting an unarmed looting suspect in the back.

The nightmare that brought them all together is remembered as the Algiers Motel incident. It’s a notably ugly chapter in the annals of late-60s urban violence, and one that has an especially grim resonance in our own time. Three black men were shot to death — nine other people were terrorized and beaten — after the police and guardsmen arrived at the motel, responding to reports of sniper fire.

Real events depicted in movies can’t exactly be given away, and this episode, while not as notorious as some other race-related murders of its era, isn’t all that obscure. (It is the subject of a book by John Hersey, a writer for The New Yorker, published a year after the riots and reissued in 1997 with an informative introduction by the historian Thomas J. Sugrue.) The basic arc of the story — the killing of unarmed black men, the spasm of outrage, the impunity ultimately bestowed on the perpetrators — is always shocking and rarely surprising. I’m sorry if that’s a spoiler.

What matters more to Ms. Bigelow and Mr. Boal than plot twists or surprises — and to an audience torn between the urge to lean in and the desire to look away — is the minute-by-minute unspooling of accident, error and intentional evil that produced a tragic result. The important thing is not the literal accuracy of the overall account (though Mr. Boal, a former journalist, has been diligent in his research) but its plausibility. Is this what could have happened? Does it feel true?

The answers, of course, can hardly be objective. The language of cinematic action — which Ms. Bigelow speaks as fluently and inventively as any living American director — is an idiom of feeling and visceral response. There are parts of “Detroit” that have a raw, unsettled authenticity, and others that sink in a welter of screaming and cursing.

The Algiers becomes a trap, not only for the characters, who are stuck inside at the mercy of a maniac, but for the film itself, which loses its political and psychological coherence as the night drags on. Krauss, with his disconcertingly boyish looks and his sophomoric attempts to seem thoughtful, is a callow sociopath. His fellow officers Flynn (Ben O’Toole) and Demens (Jack Reynor) contribute sexual hysteria (when they see white women in the company of black men) and sheer idiocy. They are terrifying and contemptible — dismayingly believable figures from the prehistory of what is now called the alt-right.

But as their villainy comes into relief, the humanity of their hostages begins to blur. In a horror movie, the monster is inevitably the center of interest, and once the first body in the motel falls, “Detroit” begins to trade its vivid sense of nuance — especially present in its delicate observation of Fred and Larry’s friendship — for bluntness and sensationalism. A complex, dreadful piece of history becomes an undialectical ordeal of viciousness and victimhood.

The film opens with the assertion that in Detroit and elsewhere in the mid-1960s, “change had to come” and “the question was when and how.” But the promise implied in that “how” is one that “Detroit,” for all its impressive craft and unimpeachable intention, proves unable to fulfill. It is curious that a movie set against a backdrop of black resistance and rebellion — however inchoate and self-destructive its expression may have been — should become a tale of black helplessness and passivity. The white men, the decent ones as much as the brutes, have the answers, the power, the agency.

The filmmakers seem aware of this problem. They try toward the end to give the movie back, in effect, to its African-American characters, to refuse to let racism have the final word and to free themselves of storytelling conventions that insist on comfort and consensus. It doesn’t quite work. American movies have a hard time with division and with real-world problems that have yet to be solved. American politics does, too. The great virtue of “Detroit” is that it recognizes this difficulty. The failure to overcome it is hardly the film’s alone.

"Detroit" opens in theaters around the country on August 4th.

[A.O. Scott joined The New York Times as a film critic in January 2000. Previously, he was a Sunday book reviewer for Newsday, and a frequent contributor to Slate, The New York Review of Books and many other publications.  Scott graduated with a B.A. degree in Literature (magna cum laude) from Harvard College in 1988 and was a grad-school dropout (from Johns Hopkins, in American Literature). He has also served on the editorial staffs of Lingua Franca and The New York Review of Books.]