Director Kathryn Bigelow's film about the 1967 riots in Detroit is a brilliantly mounted recount of an American tragedy.

In July 1967, Detroit was on fire, with angry, fed-up citizens taking to the streets out of desperation to be heard. But history tells us that things quickly got out of hand, triggering one of the deadliest race riots in U.S. history. It was ugly and disturbing, and so is “Detroit,” Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliantly mounted recount of an American tragedy. As you’d expect, it goes down like a pound of nails.

It’s the sort of serious-minded, socially conscious film that upends everything about summer cinema. “Detroit” doesn’t give you a couple of hours of air-conditioned escapist bliss with superheroes, robots, aliens or butt-kicking blondes. Instead, Bigelow and her regular scriptwriter, Mark Boal, deal in high-stakes, zeitgeist topics of police brutality and racism. The movie is uncomfortable to watch, yet it’s necessary viewing, especially in our current divisive political climate.

What makes it hard to watch are the truths the movie reinforces – that 50 years on, little has changed. American cities are still battle zones – we saw it in Baltimore with Freddie Gray in 2015 and with Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Bigelow taps into that monumental gap in perception and understanding between blacks and whites, as the legacy of racism continues, especially in law enforcement. She shows us cops behaving badly, but she also makes clear they’re a minute minority by citing examples of humanity and conscience throughout.

For those too young to remember, Bigelow shows how a spark – police raid an after-hours party for a soldier returning from Vietnam – ignites an inferno. The guests are black. The police mostly white. The scene grows chaotic. Citizens fill the streets. “What did they do?” someone in the crowd yells as cops draw their billy clubs. “That’s police overreach,” another says. That’s an understatement.

Tensions rise. Molotov cocktails are thrown. Windows break. Looting begins. Bigelow employs a quick-cut camera technique to effectively show the upheaval and deposit viewers smack in the center of it. It’s a long, immersive opening sequence, with no characterization. Bigelow uses archival footage, sound and still images mixed with dramatizations that were shot in Brockton and Lawrence to give the film a gritty realism. She relies on the event itself to grab us – and it does – by the jugular, just as Christopher Nolan does in “Dunkirk.”

Bigelow, the first woman to win an Oscar for best director (“The Hurt Locker”), opens big, but more impressively she never allows “Detroit” to devolve into a hit-all-the-high-notes historical retelling of the five-day 12th Street Riot. Bigelow swiftly and adeptly narrows her focus. The story finds its characters and ultimately lands at the Algiers Motel, where three white police officers (Will Poulter, Jack Reynor, Ben O’Toole) murder three black men and brutally beat nine others (seven black men and two white women) before trying to cover it up.

Bigelow assembles a wicked ensemble (John Boyega, Poulter, Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith) to keep us in a tightening grip for 142 minutes. With his baby face and doe eyes, Poulter (“The Revenant”) is the last person you’d expect to play a bigot with a badge. But he uses his youthful looks to his advantage and becomes one of the scariest villains I’ve seen all year. He looks as if he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Yet his Officer Krauss, who early on shoots a looter in the back and gets especially enraged thinking two white girls are hooking up with black men, executes a disturbing amount of brutality and bigotry in a role that could earn him awards-season attention.

Ditto for relative newcomer Smith as Larry Reed, a rising Motown singer for the Dramatics who finds himself on the receiving end of Poulter’s maniacal aggression. Larry and another bandmate (a superb Jacob Latimore) take refuge at the $11-a-night Algiers after their show at the Fox Theater is cancelled due to the civil unrest. The National Guard is on patrol, a curfew is in effect and the city is in a state of emergency.

The scenes in the seedy motel, considered a sort-of safe spot, start out merry, then turn harrowing and terrifying. A bunch of teenagers have gathered to party. Larry makes it his mission to find a girl for Fred (Latimore). It’s going well until Carl (Jason Mitchell, Eazy-E in “Straight Outta Compton”) stupidly fires a starter’s pistol out a window. Cops, thinking sniper, storm the motel, and the tone radically shifts. They line up the group, legs spread, hands on the wall. It’s shot documentary-style, which creates an uncomfortable intimacy.

Mackie, who co-starred in Bigelow’s “Hurt Locker,” is a standout as Greene, a decorated Vietnam vet. In an understated supporting role, Boyega (“The Force Awakens”) plays Melvin Dismukes, a security guard trying to keep peace. He flies under the radar, executing goodwill gestures such as bringing a coffee pot to guardsmen on patrol. He quietly attempts to diffuse the escalating situation until he can’t any longer. The last part of the film depicts the trial of the police officers, with John Krasinski playing the defense lawyer.

With “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” Bigelow has established herself as one of the best war dramatists in the business. “Detroit” shows an even bigger war: the battle for humanity.

Dana Barbuto may be reached at dbarbuto@ledger.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
DETROIT(R for strong violence and pervasive obscenity.) Cast: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Jack Reynor,  Kaitlyn Dever, Ben O’Toole,  John Krasinski, Anthony Mackie. Grade: A