In Kathryn Bigelow's 'Detroit,' victims don't get the focus they deserve

John Boyega in a scene from “Detroit.”
John Boyega in a scene from “Detroit.”
Published Aug. 1, 2017

By its own end credits admission, Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit is history reconstructed with incomplete information.

The worst facts are undisputed, that three black teenagers were killed by policemen at a Detroit motel during the city's 1967 rebellion against police brutality. Others were physically and emotionally tortured in the name of investigating "sniper" fire from a cap pistol.

Adding insult to atrocity, the officers were found not guilty of murder and assault after their confessions were ruled inadmissible.

Events at the Algiers Motel that July night are still murky 50 years later, a tangle of conflicting testimonies and investigative gaps. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal piece together the likeliest scenario in Detroit, a movie missing its hurricane eye for rage to circulate around.

Something is amiss when a racist sadist steals the narrative by default from underdeveloped victims. That villain is officer Krauss (Will Poulter), a fictionalized version of David Senak, one of the accused. Detroit's centerpiece is a harrowing, hour-long sequence in which Krauss relentlessly terrorizes black men and two white women in their company, rankling him more.

Only one of those victims, an aspiring singer named Larry Reed (Algee Smith) gets anything close to a back story. Larry's dream of stardom with his group, the Dramatics, is disrupted by the revolt, sending him and friend Aubrey Pollard (Nathan Davis Jr.) to the Algiers for shelter. It's worth noting that St. Petersburg native Ephraim Sykes appears in the movie as Jimmy, a member of the Dramatics.

EPHRAIM SYKES: Painful St. Petersburg past fuels his performance

Smith's tender singing gets more of Larry's want-to across than Boal's script. His life is the only one on the line given the attention it deserves.

Others are merely targets for particular racism: A returning Vietnam veteran (Anthony Mackie) beaten in spite of his service, women (Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever) being sexually degraded for socializing with black men.

Another sort of misused victim is Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a security guard pulled into the Algiers incident and later charged alongside Senak and the others. Dismukes was a scapegoat attempt that didn't work, yet Boal doesn't offer him a chance to plead innocent, at least for our dramatic benefit. Boyega's Star Wars stardom suggests a role more righteous than bystander. Or perhaps Detroit is a rare movie that could use more courtroom theatrics.

Detroit eventually becomes more of an exercise in authoritative sadism than social commentary, less insightful about such evil than, whoa, do you believe they got away with this? It doesn't intentionally become Krauss' movie but Poulter's mad dog portrayal, his introduction killing a looter with a shotgun blast to the back, immediately establish a monster.

Senak actually did kill a looter days before the Algiers incident, something I didn't know until later research. Yet it feels concocted when Krauss, like Senak, returns to riot duty and leads the Algiers investigation. Our modern perspective needs better bridging by Boal to a crueler past when he'd be back on the beat.

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Bigelow's penchant for embedded cinema is crucial to Detroit, recreating a strikingly similar war zone to The Hurt Locker, all tight quarters and head-swivel terror. Barry Ackroyd's camera urgently lurks over shoulders, surveys escalating tension. We are "there" although Detroit squanders that sensation on revulsion, a gut punch needing to take more shots at our heads.

Contact Steve Persall at or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.