WORDS: TRE JOHNSON
They stand huddled around weary and grimy with sweat in the darkness, shifting on their feet and making nervous small talk about what to do next, they peer around at the surrounding buildings.
They’re in uniform, and the summer night and the city burn all around them. From any nearby window someone could shoot them, and gathered in solidarity to duty, to law and order, they are already resigned to accepting something could indeed happen.They’re white, mostly young and on-edge. Given how chaotic things have been up until then—a gumbo of explosions, lootings, gunshots and fist fights–you couldn’t blame them for feeling a bit trigger sensitive. Worse could happen because worse has happened. Running men have been shot in the back in aborted lootings, little girls have been shot in their living room window, hot-headed assailants have indiscriminately destroyed property and attacked each other. It’s been savage and unrelenting; the city is an angry dog that needs to be put down.
You’d be excused for even having a modicum of sympathy for the soldiers vigilantly standing around; there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason for the reckless, unrelenting violence. Thank god for their guns and their steady hands; no one else would want this job. And in the midst of this, from the shadows emerges Dismukes bearing mugs of coffee not for what we likely see—the collection of law enforcement that’s ripped through black bodies like wheat chaff gasping for breath before resuming a state-mandated night patrol—but for peers in civic and civil enforcement. Brothers.
There are many despicable moments to pick from in Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit.
The movie centers itself on one particular incident though. In the middle of the night, while they’re on patrol, a shooter takes shots in the direction of armed officers. They trace the suspected shooter to the Algiers Motel, where inside various rooms that particular night are two young white women from out of town (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever); a black war veteran (Anthony Mackie), a member of Detroit’s The Dramatics (Algee Smith) and several other young black men. As the police raid the motel in a frantic search for the shooter and a weapon, they round all these individuals up, spending the night relentlessly torturing and interrogating them in the motel lobby. By the end of the night, three of the men would be dead as a result of the police incident. Much of this has been famously detailed in “The Algiers Motel Incident”, a 1968 book written by John Hersey. Bigelow’s film and filming though plays this all with coffin-like terror, spending a significant stretch of the movie with these citizens at the hands of the Detroit Police. As we match every bead of sweat, plaintive cry and beating, the camera never lets up. Each frame in Algiers is set on a razor thin edge, feeling like you’re often pressed against the wall with these men and women. The entire scene is played for a dark terror that drowns the movie.
There are many despicable moments to pick from in Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, a movie that should’ve been made to link the police state conditions that allowed the infamous night at Algiers Motel to the ongoing horrors the formal and informal power structures visit upon Black Americans, but instead rests on the laurels of victimization and stereotype trolling, but this one stood out in particular. Dismukes, played by Black actor John Boyega, is a hired security guard, asked to protect a local grocery store. It’s clear very early on that he takes his job and duties very seriously; heaving and hefting his uniform on with dutiful resignation. He’s a metaphorical watchdog, roving the grocery store aisles and the immediate surroundings at night, clad in a black uniform and with that earnest, eager-to-please slightly jowly face that won people over in Star Wars. Boyega is perfectly cast as an unintentionally hilarious and insulting character in a movie full of dark comedy and slights that land due to the poor judgment of the creators behind the camera.
There’s nothing charitable about Detroit; you would struggle to give it the benefit of the doubt for its poor execution because it doesn’t grant any such grace to its depiction of Black Detroit.
Detroit’s flaws and conflict reside in Dismukes; he becomes a testimony of not only the lack of conscience that can pervade anyone’s mind in deference to state rule but the movie’s own lack of conscience. The soldiers, armed national guard, and military men brought in to quell the black neighborhoods that boiled over after a bust of an illegal black-owned private bar, should have reacted more sensitively and menacingly to the encroaching Dismukes in that scene. It should have been conceivable to see them tense up and at least a couple of them raise guns, but Dismukes is constantly positioned as reasonable; Bigelow goes to great lengths to position Dismukes as some sort of conscience in the film, but instead of ever feeling like someone to root for, or even as a spirited guide for the audience a la Finn in Force Awakens, Boyega’s character comes across as maddeningly passive. To be fair, some of that could be a true reflection of how Dismukes actually felt in a 1960s era Detroit, but in a movie so devoid of anyone’s reflection, it’s a tough pill to swallow. There’s nothing charitable about Detroit; you would struggle to give it the benefit of the doubt for its poor execution because it doesn’t grant any such grace to its depiction of Black Detroit.
What do you make of a movie this perversely hot, sweaty and violent? What do you make of a movie that in-artfully grasps for our country’s darkest moments of late? Of militarized police forces storm trooping through black communities? Of out-of-context shots of black lootings? Of black people living amongst neighborhood wreckage? Of a black politician (here it’s played by John Conyers) standing above the black masses, imploring the beaten and bedraggled black collective to think better of what they want, of what message to send to the white people watching? Of black men oblivious to the plight around them, fighting and preening to sleep with two white girls, while finding no time to showcase any meaningful presence, dialogue or visibility to black women? Of extended torture and brutalization in an off-site feeling motel at the hands of the law? Collectively what Detroit presents in its 2.5 hours of dreck should feel like validation and an accusatory finger to a country that continues to assign the heaviest responses to its most maligned citizens.
It often feels that these stories are being framed only for audiences unfamiliar with history, race, and non-white humanity.
Detroit feels exhaustive and less like a serious hunt for racial justice, but a bloody, cartoonish take on Algiers. If someone wanted to make a YouTube video of an adult version of a Scooby Doo episode with a dark, humorous bent to it, it might look like this. Larry Reed, from the Motown Dramatics, is your celebrity cameo. The two white girls from out of town are our Velma and Daphne, and the various men—Anthony Mackie’s war veteran is a convincing Fred stand-in; Freddy Temple the boyishly awkward Shaggy—complete the group. Boyega is naturally Scooby himself; bumbling and inadvertently thwarting some of the cops’ plans, but really only passively ushering them along to trip over their own feet eventually.
The cops are the boogie men, stepping out of the darkness to descend upon the group and then hold them hostage. While you wait the whole time for them to ultimately be unmasked, to be held accountable, to render them human instead of the one note monsters that Detroit makes of them, you’re against the wall too, waiting for something, anything to break in this movie.
There’s no point in detailing the extended hallway scene, but it likely goes into the pantheon of black pain scenes like Lupita’s whipping in 12 Years a Slave. Hollywood relishes in black suffering, and Detroit has enough scenes in it to stack up against, but not overtake, the bright things we’ve seen over the last few years. Since last year we’ve had a great run of films giving a wider take on black identity than we’ve had for some time now. Movies like Hidden Figures, Moonlight, Get Out, Whose Streets and Girls Night showcased the diversity of who we are without trading them on trauma, suffering or enslavement like prior years’ films that mainstream Hollywood celebrated like Training Day, Hotel Rwanda, Hustle & Flow, The Last King of Scotland, The Help and the aforementioned 12 Years. Detroit carries this tradition of films that have a tight orbit around blackness; prone to showing us suffering, humiliated, beaten, beating and wild. In an attempt to showcase our history, Hollywood still marries itself to showing a murky kaleidoscope of stories. These stories are framed as ‘necessary’ and important because they ‘challenge’ us to do things like ‘remember our history’ or look at the darker parts of our humanity, but it often feels that these stories are being framed only for audiences unfamiliar with history, race, and non-white humanity.
They serve to, still, treat its human subjects as cattle, rarely offering any deep humanization or context to what we’re being shown. The slate of presentations and interpretations not only makes films like Detroit unflattering, it makes them dangerous, too, low-balling into lazy but routine depictions of Black people at or experiencing their worst.
As usual, the argument for intentionality will be employed to rush to the defense of these films as a way of mitigating criticism for how we estimate movies like this. Look for it in interviews and reviews; in online and dinner conversations. Watch for the careful rhetoric that asks you transcend, forgive and reconsider what you’re seeing in these films if your valid response is disdain. It’s good to remember that it’s hard to make a nuanced, human film about race……until you remember The Color Purple, Do The Right Thing, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Selma, Hidden Figures, Fences…..and then you’re left wondering:
Maybe it’s actually not so hard?
Maybe we’re seeing just exactly what we’re supposed to be seeing all along?