To begin, I want to be clear that my intended audience for this review is other white people like me. Black persons have been telling white people like me to pay attention for a long time. I’m trying to do that and to share what I see and hear with others in my group so that they might pay attention too.
Detroit, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s latest film, is tragically uneven. In trying to be all things to all people, it becomes nothing to anyone. The story about an incident in a hotel during the 1967 Detroit riots (or the “Detroit Rebellion” as the unrest is called among the African-American community there) and the court trial that followed, focuses first on the context of the civil disturbance, second on the incident in the hotel, and third on the (in)justice system that failed to pick up and make sense of the pieces.
Any single focus would have, in Bigelow and Boal’s skilled hands, likely been considered, nuanced, and compelling film. The first third of this film is mesmerizing. As tensions escalate between community members and police officers, Detroit cuts closer and closer to the parties involved. It’s pressure-cooker editing, and when the riot explodes, it feels like appropriate narratively. It doesn’t, however, make logical sense, as we don’t know anyone in the crowd, so their decision to begin breaking windows, burning buildings, and looting businesses feels obligatory rather than strategic. Granted, there’s little that seems strategic about a riot, but it is worth noting that the destruction and confiscation of property that happens during a racially-motivated riot is being done by people whose ancestors were literal property and who are currently devalued by society because of their lack of property. To overlook the economic component of racial tensions in America is to miss the point entirely. Detroit doesn’t seem to be aware of this dynamic at all, and so the film’s sympathies seem to lie with dry goods, the burning buildings, and the people who own them rather than with the marginalized and displaced people looting and lighting things on fire to assert their basic humanity.
The second act of the film has a point-of-view problem. It seeks to give white audiences a vicarious experience of what it’s like to be black in America. After a few brief scenes setting up the key players in this horror story, Detroit goes into the motel and includes a scene where two, young, white girls are terrorized by a black man with a gun (a starter pistol) in an attempt to let them feel the fear a black man feels, ostensibly, every moment of his life. Then the horror plot picks up, as the racist police officers take command of the hotel and terrorize the residents, black man and while girl alike. Bigelow frames the racist officers from below sot that they loom over us as they loom over their prisoners. She puts us on eye-level with the prisoners. These racist officers are so over-the-top though, they become cartoons, and other, more compassionate law enforcement officials are included on the edges of the main narrative. Together, this suggests, intentionally or not, that racist police officers are a “few bad apples” kind of problem. And, though this act of the film is anchored by a stellar performance by Algee Smith—his plot line bookends the second and third acts—this is an ensemble piece. Bigelow and Boal have excelled when they’ve focused on single characters who are key players in big events (The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty). Giving Algee Smith’s character more attention here might have solved this second act’s point-of-view problem. Focusing entirely on the racist cop might have done it too, since the film could have shown how, yes, he’s a monster, but he’s also a product of his culture.
And then the third act comes along, and Detroit feels too tired to do more than nod to the systemic issues that created the context for this civil unrest and perpetuated it. The court room scenes are rote. Character threads unravel and are left dangling. The events themselves are tragic, but they feel squeezed into an inspirational mold? It’s as if the filmmakers reviewed the first two acts of their film, thought, “My word! What have we done?” and tried to fix it with the third act in the eleventh hour. It feels first draft, and first drafts on this event were due in 1967. Now it just comes across as lazy.
I have immense respect for Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal. I think their combined efforts are the two most essential films of post-9/11 American cinema. But watching Detroit impressed upon me again the importance of other ways of telling this story of racial tension, civil unrests, and institutional violence in America. Listening to black storyteller is the only way a white guy like me becomes aware of the symbolic aspect of rioting, has a truly vicarious experience of what’s it’s like to be black in America, and feels the weight of a system shaped against you. So, in honor of the black voices that have informed me, I’d like to suggest a few films to watch instead of Detroit:
The Symbol of the Unconquered
Cornbread, Earl and Me
Killer of Sheep
Do the Right Thing
Daughters of the Dust
Devil in a Blue Dress
Middle of Nowhere
If you watch these films, each of them either written or directed or both by African-American filmmakers, you’ll see the same narrative about institutional violence against black Americans repeated over and over again throughout cinema history. We white Americans need to listen, because we have perpetrated this injustice and we still have the power to change it. Pay attention! Do Justice! Embrace faithful love! Walk humbly with God! Love your neighbor as you love yourself! Care for orphans and widows, and, I think, especially the orphans and widows our society has had a hand in creating by killing and imprisoning black men.
I don’t mean to be patronizing. I mean to confess that I am complicit in this unjust system, and I am committed to doing what I can to correct it. I review films. I teach people how to watch movies. I run a website. I vote. I am a friend and son and brother and spouse and relative and congregant and neighbor. So here is a review of this film. Here are a few films to watch instead. Here is the kind of man I am called to be, and I am committed to helping you become that kind of person, too, however I can.
You might also find this review of Detroit helpful: