With only one dissenting opinion on Metacritic, reviews have been overwhelmingly positive.
San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle
Director Kathryn Bigelow throws us into the middle of a riot in “Detroit,” and in the words of the Martha and the Vandellas song, there’s nowhere to run to, and there’s nowhere to hide. Going to a theater, walking down the street, running down the street, even staying at home and looking out the window — none of it is safe. The burned-out businesses and wreckage don’t look like America but like a scene out of Lebanon or Kosovo, except that we recognize it, and we know. That’s us.
Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal take us back to July 1967 and to the riots that submerged Detroit in destruction and chaos. They re-create a world — the cars, the hairstyles, the Motown — but they also reconstruct a mentality in which life seemed cheaper, where brutality was not necessarily accepted but expected as a fact of life, just as the separation of races was expected — as, to some extent, was racism itself.
In these early minutes, and throughout, Bigelow has cinematographer Barry Ackroyd film scenes with a camera that seems to hover and then burrow into the action, always moving. In a sense, this is just the modern style, but it’s fascinating to see how psychologically rich this style can be when the filmmakers know why they are showing this image and not that image. Bigelow combines this freedom of movement with a sense of composition, so that we get shots that just instinctively feel right, as when Larry (Algee Smith), a young singer, stands just offstage, in the wings, practicing with his musical group — and in the background we see another singing group onstage, basking in the light and the adulation…
“Detroit” is a movie that will make you angry. It is designed to make you angry, and it does nothing to soften the blow or create some artificial uplift. But there is something about honesty that’s exhilarating. “Detroit” is tough, but it’s worth it, every minute of it.
The Washington Post, Ann Hornaday
In “Detroit,” director Kathryn Bigelow concentrates and refracts the 1967 riots in that eponymous city through the lens of one of its most notorious yet largely forgotten incidents, when a group of white police officers tortured and murdered a group of teenagers at the Algiers Motel, then covered it up. Of a piece with Bigelow’s Oscar-winning 2008 Iraq drama “The Hurt Locker” and 2012’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” the tense, harrowingly intimate “Detroit” rounds out a trilogy of fact-based, fog-of-war interpretive histories. Even though it’s based on an episode that occurred half a century ago, it feels like her timeliest movie yet.
…Just when the viewer thinks that “Detroit” will be a “tick-tock” narrative of the mayhem and sociopolitical upheaval that defined the nearly week-long rebellion, Bigelow makes a radical shift, following a singer named Larry Reed (Algee Smith) as he and his group the Dramatics prepare for a career-making set at Detroit’s legendary Fox Theater. When the show is canceled because of security issues outside, Larry and his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) take refuge at the Algiers, where the vibe promises to be far mellower, more welcoming and safe.
It’s at this point that “Detroit,” which was written by Bigelow’s frequent collaborator Mark Boal, goes from being a bluntly effective you-are-there exercise to something far more daring, sophisticated and unforgettably disturbing. Rather than treat the Algiers as yet one more data point within a timeline that eventually included the arrival of the National Guard and, finally, the U.S. Army, Bigelow drills down into one of American history’s most egregious cases of abuse of police power, bringing it to life with visceral detail and slowed-down meticulousness…
…Alternately stretching out and compressing the narrative, Bigelow and her creative team, including editor William Goldenberg, have combined the most immersive aspects of “The Hurt Locker” with the linear procedural aspects of “Zero Dark Thirty” to create a new cinematic language: a form of deconstructed, almost hallucinatory realism whose unpredictable shape and rhythms are altogether appropriate for the almost incomprehensible moment it seeks to capture. (Documentary footage from the era is seamlessly knitted into the dramatizations, which were mostly filmed in Boston.)
“Detroit” is an audacious, nervy work of art, but it also commemorates history, memorializes the dead and invites reflection on the part of the living. In scale, scope and the space it offers for a long-awaited moral reckoning, it’s nothing less than monumental.
Variety, Owen Gleiberman
At their best, liberal film dramas that tackle the monumental issue of race in America have offered humanity and insight. It’s safe to say, though, that when Hollywood gives us a portrait of racial tragedy and injustice, it’s probably a tale of hope and uplift as well, a parable of moral darkness leading nobly into the light. But when you watch “Detroit,” Kathryn Bigelow’s sweeping, scalding drama about the Detroit riots that took place 50 years ago, in July 1967, you’re entering a zone where the usual feel-good pieties don’t apply. For this is no comforting drama of social protest. It’s closer to a hair-trigger historical nightmare, one you can’t tear yourself away from. Bigelow, working from a script by her regular collaborator Mark Boal (it’s their first film since “Zero Dark Thirty”), has created a turbulent, live-wire panorama of race in America that feels like it’s all unfolding in the moment, and that’s its power. We’re not watching tidy, well-meaning lessons — we’re watching people driven, by an impossible situation, to act out who they really are.
Bigelow works in jagged brief scenes, mixing in an occasional shot of period newsreel footage that testifies to the startling job the film’s production designer, Jeremy Hindle, and cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, have done in re-creating the crumbling squalor of Detroit in the white-flight era. Bigelow sketches in the emotional and logistical dynamics of a late-’60s urban riot: the violence that erupts out of the city’s residents without warning and, seemingly, without “rational” justification, because there’s no agenda behind it — it’s protest in the form of a spasm. The fact that we’re seeing African-Americans trash their own neighborhoods expresses something that’s profoundly implosive yet necessary: an incendiary had-it-up-to-here hopelessness tinged with a weary nothing-more-to-lose masochism.
What follows is an extraordinary sequence of agonizing, protracted police terrorism. Krauss lines everyone up against the wall, demanding to know who the shooter was, and where the gun is. But hardly anyone saw Carl fire his toy pistol, and everyone, understandably, clams up. Krauss, who we’ve already seen shoot a looter in the back, thinks he’s enforcing “the rule of law,” but what’s really happening is that the riot has dissolved the rule of law…
…Even when this brilliantly excruciating sequence is over, the nightmare doesn’t end. The movie turns Kafkaesque when Melvin, who didn’t even piss off the police, is called in as a suspect; he carries a .38 pistol for his job, so he’ll do. The film then leaps ahead to the trial of the three cops, an event that Bigelow and Boal stage less as a courtroom drama than as a prismatic snapshot of how, in our legal system, the racial deck gets stacked. Yet it’s all part of a larger story, and “Detroit,” by digging into the toxic heart of what that story is about, should provide for moviegoers, both black and white, a dramatic experience that is nothing short of a catharsis. Let the searing — and, God willing, the healing — begin.
Los Angeles Times, Justin Chang
Near the beginning and the end of “Detroit,” Kathryn Bigelow’s tense, excruciating and entirely necessary new film, a young Motown performer named Larry Reed (beautifully played by Algee Smith) raises his head and croons to the heavens with heart-swelling abandon. First he sings of love on an enormous stage; later he sings of peace in a small church. Both times his voice lifts you to the rafters, offering a rare intimation of grace in a movie of overwhelming human ugliness, set in a world where love and peace can feel as distant as justice…
…It could scarcely be anything else, given the specific story it’s telling. Although its title suggests an all-encompassing vision, “Detroit” is less interested in capturing the riot’s day-by-day chaos than in revisiting one of its darkest chapters — a furious confrontation between law enforcement and unarmed civilians that, on the night of July 25-26, turned a local establishment called the Algiers Motel into a charnel house.
Bigelow sets the scene on the ground with crackling immediacy, ricocheting between quick bursts of newsreel footage and her own meticulous period re-creation of Detroit’s heavily segregated black communities. We see the spark igniting on July 23, 1967, when cops raid a “blind pig,” or illegal after-hours bar, and drive its black patrons out into the street, drawing an angry crowd and setting the first waves of violence in motion.
Even as she’s establishing context — something she accomplishes with the help of an animated prologue detailing the social and economic disparities that kept black urban Americans in a perpetual state of struggle — Bigelow has an almost preternatural respect for the audience’s intelligence. She doesn’t belabor the rioters’ tactics or their rationale, and she largely allows the filmmaking to speak for itself. The eerie images of smoldering buildings, smashed storefronts, closed-off streets and angry, teeming throngs are a visually eloquent reminder that a riot, in the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “is the language of the unheard.”
What follows is a hideous sequence of events that both curdles and boils the blood, and I mean it as a compliment when I say that it seems to last an eternity. Reteaming with her “Hurt Locker” cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, whose agitated handheld closeups dovetail with William Goldenberg and Harry Yoon’s propulsive editing, Bigelow plays out this nightmare with an unrelieved, claustrophobic intensity. The cops force the black men and white women to line up against the wall. They beat them, interrogate them about a weapon that doesn’t exist, and threaten to kill them if they remain silent — a grim bluff that inevitably, fatally backfires.
…Is this grueling, bruising, hard-to-watch movie something anyone needs to sit through? It’s a question that reveals less about the film’s ostensible agenda, I think, than it does about the inquirer’s default complacency. Since the invention of the camera, it has taken a particularly willful ignorance to live in complete freedom from images of black suffering and revolt in the face of unchecked police authority. What makes “Detroit” vital is not that its images are new or revelatory, but rather that Bigelow and Boal have succeeded, with enviable coherence and tremendous urgency, in clarifying those images into art.
Chicago Sun-Times, Richard Roeper
As the brutality builds and the tragedy unfolds in “Detroit,” you do not find yourself wondering how such things could have happened in the America of 1967.
You find yourself wondering how such things could still be happening in the America of 2017…
…Director Bigelow seamlessly cuts from archival news footage to her cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s stunning, brilliant and sometimes claustrophobically intense work. By the time the story reaches the Algiers Motel, even if one doesn’t know the history of what transpired there, the sense of impending horror is palpable.
…As the hours tick by at the Algiers and the cops berate, intimidate and torture a dozen residents lined up against the wall in the lobby, “Detroit” becomes ever more intense, ever smaller in scope. Bigelow eschews the big-picture narrative for an unsettling trip down a rabbit hole. Krauss becomes a dictator, insanely drunk on his own power and hatred, and even the cops and Guardsmen with some misgivings about what is transpiring can’t muster the courage to stop him…
In the third act, “Detroit” shifts gears again and becomes a courtroom drama, with Krauss and his two main henchmen on trial for assault and murder. The film accurately reflects what really happened at that trial, and I’ll leave it at that.
This is one of the best movies of 2017.