Watching Detroit, the latest collaboration between director Katheryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, reminded me of my experience observing D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation for the first time. While I marvelled at the filmmaking prowess on display, I was ultimately left feeling angry and cold.
Thankfully, unlike Griffith’s cinematic propaganda, Bigelow’s film has no interest in promoting racial divide. Through its unflinching lens the brutality depicted is meant to educate and unite. Its overall message serves as a reminder of how little America has learned from its turbulent past.
It became evident though, as the racism and violence ramped up, that Detroit’s message was not geared towards me.
It was speaking to the predominantly white audience – I was the only black person in my matinee screening – who gasped with disbelief at each punch, slur, and gunshot administered by members of the Detroit Police Department. “That’s insane” and “how could they do that?” were words utter by the woman who sat in the row behind me. The horror she was witnessing was unimaginable, but for me it was par for the course.
I have spent a lifetime seeing these types of images, hearing countless stories, and dealing with my own experiences with blatant and covert prejudice. I did not need to live through Detroit’s 12th Street Riots depicted in the film, or the L.A. Riots in the 90s, to understand the fear, rage and frustration that the black community has felt regarding the lengthy injustices endured at the hands of law enforcement.
Depicting a particular facet of the 1967 12th Street riots, the incident that occurred at The Algiers Motel – where three individuals where killed and nine others, including two white women, were tortured by members of the riot task force – Bigelow constructs a film that could easily be applied to modern times. She uses the film to show how frequent abuse of police power, economic segregation and unresolved social injustices are a recipe for a volatile stew.
As vivid as the imagery in the film is, Detroit’s biggest flaw is that it does not provide enough character depth to support the brutality onscreen. Some of the individuals on-screen, take the Vietnam veteran Greene (Anthony Mackie) for example, trapped in the motel are so thinly sketched that one could not help but feel emotionally removed as they are being beaten like a piñata. Of the few characters who are painted with a slightly thicker brush, it is crooner Larry (Algee Smith) who best embodies how unchecked police violence can lead black men and women to distrust not only the institution of law enforcement, but also those who simply observe this injustice from a comfortable distance.
The other two individuals of note in the film are Krauss (Will Poulter in a breathtakingly chilling performance) and Dismukes (John Boyega). The former is a “shoot first, make up a reason later” style Detroit police offer who was allowed to continue his regular shifts despite already facing possible manslaughter chargers for shooting a black man, who was stealing groceries during the riots, in the back. Dismukes on the other hand is a well-meaning security guard who believes the best way to save black lives is defuse all situations by acting as the non-threatening mediator between law enforcement and members of his community. However, his frequent desire to appease the white officers, thus keeping the trigger-happy individuals temporarily sedated, makes him come across as an “Uncle Tom” in the eyes of some.
Through these two characters Bigelow shows: 1) how even earnest attempts to comply with law enforcement can still end poorly for people of colour; and 2) how little those in power tend to understand, or even care, about the plight of those who do not look like them.
These powerful statements, which especially hits home when both the Michigan State Police and the Michigan Army National Guard turn a blind eye to the brutality, would have had an even greater impact had Bigelow provided us with more fleshed out characters to not only connect with, but see ourselves in.
There as been a lot of debate regarding whether Bigelow, a white woman, should be telling a story about the victimization of black people. I will not throw my hat in the ring of that dispute as the intricacies of such a discussion are too great to address here. However, I will say that I respect Bigelow’s decision to tackle this story rather than ignore it like so many of her peers have. To me, the most disturbing thing about Detroit is not the unrelenting depiction of racial violence, but the fact that we needed a historical film like this to finally open people’s eyes to injustices that one can see every night on the local news.