Detroit is ambitious in scope and somewhat struggles for it, as screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker) want to provide both a sociological overview and intimate immediacy with their dramatization of the 1967 Civil Rights uprising that took over the title city for five days. (It’s the sociology that gets slighted, as Detroit’s visceral, docudrama style inadvertently emphasizes the “criminality” of the residents, while Will Poulter’s portrayal of a maniac cop supports the “few bad apples” theory of police brutality.) Still, the extensive ensemble cast also includes the sleepy-eyed, silky-voiced Algee Smith, who anchors the movie by offering its most compelling performance. As Larry Reed, lead singer for the aspiring (and real-life) Motown group The Dramatics, Smith conveys how the conflict had very personal costs. Reed sings at three crucial moments in the film—early on, he gives an ominous solo performance to a theater that has emptied out because of the violence outside; during the middle section, he offers a pleading, sung prayer while being terrorized by Poulter’s deranged cop; near the end, having left The Dramatics due to post-traumatic stress, he leads a humble church choir. Detroit may not help us understand all the dynamics that led to those five days of terror, but with Smith’s help, the movie does convey what it might have been like for those who suddenly found themselves living in a police state—and how real lives were irrevocably damaged, if not lost.