Detroit is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
One does not want to suggest that white directors and white screenwriters just stay the hell away from black stories. (Surely that cannot be the answer, when it is white America that needs so desperately to grapple with its terrible legacy of, and continued complicity in, systemic, institutionalized racism.) But one is tempted to propose such a blanket moratorium after seeing a movie like Detroit, from director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (the team that brought us The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty).
Bigelow and Boal have made their film expertly, and—let us give them every benefit of the doubt—with the very best of intentions. Yet it is a film that caters to, and wallows in, some of the worst instincts of white America: the almost lascivious fascination with the destruction of black bodies, combined with an unconscionable naïveté about—even an air of apology for—the mentality and circumstances that result in such inhumanity. Detroit revels in the details of the brutality, while oversimplifying (and even excusing) the complexity of its causes. Thus, it tells us—white or black—virtually nothing that we do not already know, and we have to wonder if it ultimately doesn’t do far more harm than good.
A warning: I am going to be very hard on Detroit—a well-shot, well-acted, well-intentioned film—and I am also going to have to discuss more plot details than I usually would, in order to explain my serious concerns.
But I am tired. I am tired of seeing movies like this. I am tired of seeing them win awards. I am tired of them being fawned over by white critics who elevate them as insightful and accusatory when they are really just reductive and exculpatory. I am tired of white filmmakers profiting—reputationally and economically—from exploiting such stories in ways that are both prurient and palliative. I am tired of white audiences embracing such films, and walking out of them feeling like they have understood something about the black American experience, when really they have just been provided torture-porn titillation and an excuse to feel superior to more cartoonishly racist white people.
We need more art that genuinely grapples with the problem of racism in this country. We do not need more movies like Detroit.
The first thing to know about Detroit is that it is not the story of the July 1967 Detroit riots, which raged for five days, led to over 7,000 arrests, and resulted in 43 deaths. With the right screenwriter, Bigelow’s “film as journalism” approach might have well served such an ambitious undertaking, but Bigelow and Boal choose to use the riots as backdrop only. The film shows the outbreak of the riot—which started after police raided an unlicensed speakeasy on the city’s Near West Side—but then focuses on one horrific, largely forgotten incident that occurred at the Algiers Motel, roughly a mile from where the riots began. There, police—ostensibly searching for a sniper they thought was within—systematically beat and tortured a group of motel guests—mostly black, and mostly teen-agers—and shot three black youths to death.
In the film, Larry Cleveland Reed (Algee Smith, excellent), the lead singer for an aspiring R&B group called The Dramatics, just misses his big chance to impress Motown scouts when the riots force the evacuation of the club where the group is supposed to perform. With the city going up in flames around them, and the National Guard rolling in, Larry and his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) decide to take shelter in the nearby Algiers Motel. There, they fall in with a group of black teenagers, and flirt with the two white girls (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) who are partying with them.
When a 17-year-old kid named Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) fires a starter pistol out the window of the motel in the direction of police and National Guard, it brings a barrage of bullets, the death of Cooper, and a lengthy “interrogation” of the other residents by three white Detroit police officers—one of whom, Krauss (Will Poulter), is already facing murder charges for shooting an unarmed black man earlier in the day. Observing the interrogation is Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a black security guard who has been protecting a nearby store.
The interrogation scene—which occupies the long middle portion of the film, and is Detroit‘s primary reason for existing—is almost unwatchably brutal, depicting casually atrocious physical brutality and cruel psychological torture: Bigelow and Boal seem to want to make the events of the Algiers Motel a microcosmic study of racist power like Abu Ghraib prison. In their effort to get the kids to give up the location of the (non-existent) sniper rifle, the three white cops play “the death game,” in which they take kids one by one into a separate room and pretend to shoot them: the others outside believe the cops are murdering their friends one by one. And the situation—already an reprehensible atrocity—reaches a whole new level of nightmare when one of the cops doesn’t realize “the death game” is supposed to be a game.
Detroit raises a fundamental question about cinematic responsibility: is simply showing unspeakable brutality—in relentless, unblinking fashion—a sufficient ambition for a film like this? To me, it is not: in this day and age, when examples of similar atrocities are shared on social media with almost deadening frequency, there should not be a person left alive on the planet who does not know that such things have happened in America for hundreds of years, and continue to happen on a daily basis. (And, if such unforgivably naïve people do exist—having avoided all the available evidence of their senses—they are certainly not going to be lining up to buy a ticket to this movie.) Detroit, therefore, does not feel to me like an “expose”: what, at this point, is there left to expose, and to whom? Absent any further contribution to the conversation, it feels like little more than torture-porn: a racially-charged version of horror films like Hostel or Saw with a thin, disingenuous patina of socially-responsible respectability.
And though I understand Bigelow’s “film as journalism” theory—her previous films have taken a similarly objective, “show-don’t-explicate” approach—I do not believe for a moment that Detroit is good, responsible journalism. Many of the facts in this case were and still are in dispute, having never been established definitively. What this means is that Bigelow and Boal—as the film admits in a lame disclaimer at the end—have made many of their own decisions about what happened at the Algiers, and why. And many of these decisions—examined within the context of the real-life story being told—are highly questionable, and reveal a bias towards “fairness” that severely undermines the moral authority of the film.
For example: the presence of a starter pistol (or any kind of toy pistol) at the Algiers is entirely in question. (Testimony from the survivors varied on this point, and no gun of any kind was ever found.) But Bigelow and Boal choose to make the pistol not only an indisputable fact, but to actually show Cooper pointing it out the window, pretending to be a sniper, firing several rounds to deliberately provoke the police. This is no small creative liberty to take: in the war-zone atmosphere of the Detroit Riots—in which there were actual snipers shooting at heavily-armed police and guardsmen—such a move would be recklessly stupid at best, and logically tantamount to suicide. Which is to say, the film makes the triggering incident the fault of the black youths, and actually makes the initial response from the police—if not the later brutality—seem somewhat reasonable. This bizarre choice on the film’s part is compounded throughout the torture sequence, by the fact that no one who saw Cooper fire the starter pistol says so: even believing themselves about to be shot in the head, the kids never mention the toy gun Bigelow has definitively established earlier. (And the gun—for reasons the film refuses to explain—has disappeared.)
How is this responsible? In sifting through the confusing real-life testimony, every interpretive “choice” Bigelow and Boal seem to have made is to move more of the blame off the white officers, and onto the black victims. (Such strange apologias accumulate as the film proceeds: what is the point behind making the first death in “the death game” an accident of miscommunication, except to offer a partial defense of the white officers?)
Other such subtly (and not so subtly) misguided “even-handedness” permeates the larger context of Detroit. A pre-credits sequence—set against the paintings of artist Jacob Lawrence—grossly oversimplifies the history of the Great Migration, and seems to reduce the explanation for Detroit’s disenfranchised black neighborhoods down to “white flight.” The film provides very little context or justification for the riots, and absolutely no perspective of any of the rioters: Bigelow and Boal’s presentation of the riot’s beginnings shows a mob of unnamed thugs who decide—more or less on a whim—to start looting stores. The cumulative effect is that Detroit—while pretending to stay objective—takes an incredibly offensive “establishment” view of what a riot really is. Refusing to see it as “the language of the unheard” (in MLK’s words), and all but ignoring the city’s complex racial history and sociopolitical context, the riot presented here (mostly through news footage) seems like little more than a bunch of lawless animals mindlessly tearing their neighborhoods apart. Bigelow and Boal have no understanding of, or sympathy for, the protesters and rioters: their approach to the black community’s justifiable rage is to embrace respectability politics and present the victims at the Algiers Motel (except for Cooper) as “good” black people: the kind who would never take part in such uppity shenanigans, and therefore don’t “deserve” such treatment.
And the victims are only victims: with the (partial) exceptions of Larry Cleveland and a former Army Ranger played by Anthony Mackie, Bigelow and Boal take the time to establish none of the black residents of the Algiers as actual characters with whom we can empathize: we simply know nothing about them, and barely learn their names. (More time is spent on the two white girls, and even on Poulter’s racist cop, all of whom have more dialogue, screen-time, and agency than the black characters.) Boyega’s character is perhaps the most frustratingly and bafflingly passive: he initially tries to calm the situation down, but through most of it he stands idly by watching it unfold. (The problem is not with historical fact—this may have, in fact, been how Dismukes behaved—but with the film’s utter failure to make us understand his actions or point of view.) In general, the film spends a truly disturbing amount of time from the point of view of the white officers, as the escalating situation becomes their problem to deal with. The black characters largely exist as passive, almost anonymous bodies to be beaten.
I do not mean to suggest that Detroit has sympathy for the white perpetrators of this terrible atrocity: it doesn’t. But Detroit pulls off the slick trick that well-intentioned white filmmakers have been using throughout cinematic history to ensure that these “issue” pictures remain palliative to white audiences: it allows us to feel superior to the racists by presenting them as irredeemably evil, craven, or stupid. Familiar from such “prestige” pictures as Crash and The Help, it is an approach that allows white audiences to consume stories like this as perverse entertainment, without ever having to examine our own privilege or our larger complicity in America’s racial society. Poulter is the ringleader here, an amoral and gleefully inhuman sadist. The other two cops (Jack Reyner and Ben O’Toole) are one-note weaklings, dumb and rudderless. (Much of their mindless hatred for the black men seems to be driven by the presence of white women at the motel, a motivation common in film history. Movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind established protecting white women as the crucial goal of white men, and modern films still treat sexual insecurity as one of the few, simple explanations for racism with which white audiences can comfortably deal.)
Again, the problem is not that Detroit presents these men as evil: I can believe they were, all too easily. The problem is that Detroit tells us nothing meaningful about them, offering no insight about their characters or any challenges to our own. We white viewers are safely removed from them, and thus comfortably relieved of any burden for their crimes. We are similarly removed from the black men, seeing them as brutalized objects and not as relatable subjects. (Black women are almost nowhere to be seen in Detroit: the filmmakers have carefully dropped Samira Wiley’s “character” into the trailer, but her entire role consists of about two meaningless lines as the Motel’s clerk.)
I do not, ultimately, know what is supposed to be the point of Detroit, and it is a horrific experience to endure for nothing. I do not know who it is for, and I do not know what it thinks it is accomplishing. Bigelow and Boal clearly think they are drawing useful parallels to the outrages that inspired the Black Lives Matter movement. But it seems to me that a film like Detroit—which over-simplifies institutionalized racism, objectifies its victims, caricatures the perpetrators, and comfortably divorces these past atrocities from our contemporary reality and responsibility—does far more harm than good. Oh, weren’t things terrible then, white people can say, walking out of Detroit feeling like we are so much more progressive and enlightened now.
As I said when I began, America desperately needs art that explores this country’s unconscionable legacy of, and ongoing complicity in, racial injustice: art that is genuinely revelatory, insightful, and confrontational. We do not need more historical dramas like Detroit, and we do not need to celebrate them as if they were somehow important. We do not need films that irresponsibly offer visceral, voyeuristic horror by showing us the wanton destruction of black bodies: that is not, unfortunately, something for which we must look to Hollywood to provide. “It’s time we knew,” the tagline for Detroit reads. But we already know every single thing Detroit has to tell us, and we find no pleasure or purpose in enduring such simplistically awful lessons again.