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Fictional elements undercut Kathryn Bigelow’s gut-wrenching drama

August 4, 2017 GMT

Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow’s fictionalized, fact-based drama “Detroit,” scripted by Bigelow regular Mark Boal (“Zero Dark Thirty”), is a resonant and relevant re-enactment of the murders of three young black men and the beatings of several other people in the Algiers Motel during the Detroit race riots of 1967. But the film does itself no favors by manipulating a key element to make the guilty look even more guilty, although as a film about black history directed by a white person, it’s a vast improvement on “Mississippi Burning.” The story combines shaky-cam live action with archival footage and begins in the form of paintings, explaining the “great migration” of freed African-Americans from the rural South to the manufacturing centers of the North, including Detroit, Mich.

In opening scenes set on the eve of what is known as the 12th Street Riot, people at a “blind pig” (an unlicensed bar) are roughly gathered up and sent off to be booked while an angry crowd assembles and eventually begins throwing rocks and bottles at police cruisers. Soon, buildings, many of them African-American owned businesses, are ablaze and smoke shrouds most streets in the inner city.

At a local theater, local singer Larry Cleveland (a strong turn by Algee Smith) is devastated when his group’s show is canceled by the riot. Larry, his “manager” Fred (Jacob Latimore) and others go to the Algiers Motel to seek refuge from the violence. There they meet two young white women, Julie (Hannah Murray of “Game of Thrones”) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), visiting from Ohio.

In a room, a young man named Carl (Jason Mitchell), who is cooking and serving drinks, takes out a starter pistol and as a “joke” fires it out a window in the direction of police and National Guardsmen a block away. Across the street from the police is a black security guard named Dismukes (John Boyega of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”). The firing brings the authorities, including Dismukes, down on the Algiers. One of the policemen, Krauss (a problematic Will Poulter), is an obvious psychopath, even to one of his superiors. He and two equally violent, if not quite as insane, policemen partners take over interrogation of the people from Carl’s room, beating them and threatening them with execution.

What we see is gut-wrenching, galvanizing and torturous — as you would expect from the director of “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” “Detroit” chronicles the same events as the John Hersey book “The Algiers Motel Incident.” But the film lacks psychological depth. Ava DuVernay’s underappreciated “Selma” had more complexity. Anthony ­Mackie is excellent in “Detroit” as a recent Vietnam War veteran caught up in the chaos, and Boyega recalls a young Denzel Washington. In one horrific scene, a Guardsman fires a .30-caliber machine-gun into a residential window. But for witnesses to describe Carl’s pistol as a “toy gun” is misleading and dishonest. In third-act courtroom scenes, John Krasinski — in wig and eyeglasses — is not very convincing as a generically evil defense attorney. Bigelow and Boal’s third collaboration, this motor city “Detroit” is a nerve-jangling misfire.

(“Detroit” contains violence, profanity and sexually suggestive language and images.)