Stuart Klawans at The Nation:
What happened, exactly? Detroit gives you a highly credible reconstruction—not that the filmmakers will stop at mere plausibility. They’re content with nothing less than full immersion, playing out the incident at such length that the movie might more accurately have been titled Algiers. By means of excruciating exhaustiveness, they hit the first of their sweet spots: proving to their own satisfaction, and presumably yours, that their opening statement was correct. The white cops in the Algiers were unrelentingly racist and violent, and the black Detroiters devoid of options other than enduring their victimhood, collaborating with the cops, or rebelling.
Bigelow and Boal envision the purity of victimhood in the figures of Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), members of an aspiring vocal group who are holed up at the Algiers. They’re portrayed as achingly dewy and innocent—especially Larry, who might play at being a ladies’ man but mostly wants to lift his sweet tenor toward heaven. The self-torture of collaboration is represented by Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a security guard who believes the best way to help his people is to align himself with the inescapable white authorities and demonstrate his rectitude to them at all times. Bigelow and Boal make him out to be the type of guy who would iron his boxer shorts. You know from the start that he’ll end up betrayed and disillusioned, just as any experienced moviegoer will understand that Larry and Fred will never get back to the stage of the Fox Theatre.