Algee Smith, John Boyega and Will Poulter did not receive an Oscar nominations for portraying Larry Reed, Melvin Dismukes, and Trooper Philip Krauss respectively in Detroit.
The three sadly all converge on the Algiers hotel. Smith's Larry gets there first with his friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) who are just trying to wait out the riots within the hotel. Smith is good in these scenes establishing the style of Larry just directly outside of the sphere of performance. In one part just his easy friendship between the two one based on encouragement for that dream though, where Smith just depicts a mild somberness due to that denial caused earlier in the night. The two have just enough a warmth between the two suggesting their friendship as when Fred encourages him to keep working for his singing career Larry attempts to help Fred find a woman within the vicinity of the hotel. Smith's also very good in these scenes in portraying Larry as guy who is properly smooth, he has a definite charm, but perhaps not quite smooth as he thinks he is. This happens when arrives in the annex whereas the other men there are non too impressed by his personal style, and Smith reactions are very effective here in portraying kind of losing that overt confidence he projected so well when he initially approached the women who led him and Fred to the annex. A practical joke, involving a starter pistol, soon gets out of hand when the noise of the fake gunshots cause the law enforcement outside to believe there is a sniper in the building.
The law enforcement group eventually includes Boyega's Melvin, but is more or less lead by Poulter's Krauss who is the first to enter the building. His first act in there is to once again shoot a fleeing man which Poulter portrays without hesitation. Instead he depicts again this mindset of an extremist's justification as he is not at all phased by this as he quickly plants a knife to make the escapee seem as though the shot into the back was somehow warranted. Poulter brings this unsettling assurance in the moment though as though this is merely Krauss going about his business as he firmly believes is fit, which if he suspects you for a moment you're target practice for him. Krauss takes over as he has all the denizens lined up on a wall for interrogation. Poulter is terrifying here in the intensity he brings in this scene. What is particularly unnerving is how Poulter plays the scene with such an effortless command, as though this brutality is what Krauss has been waiting for. He specifically doesn't seem at all messy and in a way is scarier in the more subdued hatred that he expresses because of how refined it is within the man. There is a detached precision in Poulter's performance who goes from one verbal or physical attack to another with such ease without a moments hesitation, as though this is his "duty" of his to perform. Poulter conveys absolute control of the situation that makes it all the more horrifying for the complete lack of empathy in any facet of his work.
This leaves Smith's Larry at sometimes the literal blunt end of a gun, and his performance adds to the visceral quality of the scene. Smith portrays Larry as barely able stand amidst all the shouting and violence as he depicts a man wholly gripped in fear. Although he is part of the group being attacked he does stand out within this once Poulter's Krauss demands that the group starts praying for their lives. Smith is absolutely haunting in his depiction of this by bringing the same passion into his performance here than on stage, but now as this terrified cry for help when doing so rather than with the optimistic cheer of before. Boyega's Melvin appears as though potentially one of the few sources of help as he also arrives on the scene. Boyega plays this quite well because he does not play Melvin as this hero at the annex. Boyega instead properly shows, largely with very few speaking lines, depicts the right sense that Melvin is trying to figure out what is going on himself. Unlike Poulter, he does bring an underlying sense of empathy as he watches the brutality, but within that conveys the sense of confusion. Boyega properly plays it as Melvin has no idea whether or not the members of the annex are guilty or not, since there was no way for him to know. When he takes one of the men away into another room in the annex Boyega bluntly delivers the questions on where the gun is, offering still a sense of understanding in this interactions, but still with the hesitation of a guy who doesn't know exactly what's going on.
Krauss's reign of terror continues even as he goes about interrogating everyone, multiple ways including fake "shooting" them in order to find the gun that doesn't exist. Poulter's work does overpower these scenes in how effectively he realizes the sheer extent of the man's vicious behavior without a hint of shame. Again though Poulter keeps to the idea of the man's conviction towards his deranged worldview that makes him act without impunity, and this hollowness as the violence comes so easily to him. Poulter's performance though goes further in that he's not one note, but the variations that appear in Krauss Poulter uses them only to make the man all the more disquieting. This includes the scene where he interrogates the two women in the hotel. At first doesn't hold back but when it appears he's gotten any information from them, Poulter shows Krauss's effort to offer a bit of comfort through this little smile he gives that is downright bone chilling by how Poulter realizes as this brief almost alien false face for the man while attempting to do something completely against his nature. The other moment that shows any other side is when one of his fellow officers shoots one of the hotel guests after failing to understand Krauss's fake shooting interrogation tactic. Poulter doesn't humanize Krauss in this rather he just merely shows that he is human in his reaction. A reaction of genuine fear and concern. A concern not at all for the dead man, but rather Poulter plays it as this realization that things might have finally gotten out of hand for him and the other officers.
The incident ends with Smith portraying Larry as petrified in fear and both physically and emotionally exhausted by the end. His performance completely brings about the wear of the man as this man who is an absolute wreck as he stumbles away looking for any help. Boyega, while I do think Melvin is somewhat under served as a character throughout the film, effectively conveys the growing unease in the realization that something has gone very wrong here. Poulter though shows that Krauss with still his personal determination to somehow get himself off of the night as he lets most of the men go except demands that they will lie about what happened. Poulter delivers this threat in a truly alarming way by again being so direct and blunt in this. In his eyes there is only this certainty that he will have no hesitation to kill if he does not hear as he wants to hear with his questions. When Larry's friend Fred fails to lie, Poulter portrays the reaction to this with just a slight shrug as one more atrocity that Krauss can live with. This leads to the final act of the film, which is the weakest portion of the film. Boyega again feels somewhat short shrift by the narrative as Mevlin is arrested and charged along with the racist officers. This isn't really explored all that much beyond a few brief scenes including one where Melvin is interrogated by detectives, then a later scene where he vomits upon realizing the men will get off. This seems like a complicated idea that just isn't given the time to develop. That leaves Boyega with only a few brief scenes. They are are well portrayed as in the interrogation where Boyega begins with this earnest explanation and slowly drifts this unease into his face as the men's questions become more intense. The same is true for his later scene where he conveys that inward disgust at the result incident. Boyega gives a terrific performance and really makes the most he can out of the part, a part that seemed to have more potential though then we see within this film. Poulter only has a few moments after the incident ends. He uses them well though to show a man who has not all been changed by the events still showing that same confident streak even when taken into questioning where he portrays this just general confusion as though he couldn't possibly know why he's being arrested. His very final moment is one last great one for his performance where he tells Boyega's Melvin that "You're a good guy". Poulter's delivery couldn't be more patronizing as though he's recognized one person from what he sees as the lower class worthy of his minor approval. Poulter delivers a great performance in a truly frightening depiction of unrepentant monster defined by his grotesque philosophy. The film ends with the story of Larry as he tries to move on after his brutal treatment and the death of his friend. Smith is incredibly powerful in portraying the complete loss of any of that optimism or drive in the man as he refuses to follow his singing career. Smith, even in the final scenes, where Larry is now singing with a church choir, his singing, though as potent in terms of technical skill, now is defined by sorrow and pain rather than the joy of his expression. Algee Smith is heartbreaking in showing in his performance the transformation of the sanguine young man reduced to a living victim of the event who continues on in this solitude forever scared by his experience.