Can someone who is not African-American—a so-called white woman, for instance—legitimately create artwork about the 1967 Detroit riot? My answer is an emphatic yes; my evidence, the last 30 pages or so of Joyce Carol Oates’s novel them. Of course, them isn’t really “about” the days of upheaval, except in the sense that a salmon’s life is ultimately about swimming upstream to the spawning ground. The only way you could have kept that book from going for the guns and flames was by clubbing it on the head; and even then it would have struggled on, snuffling for its sweet spot.
So my main question about Detroit—directed by Kathryn Bigelow, written by Mark Boal—isn’t whether it commits the purported crime of cultural appropriation. The very first thing the filmmakers do, in fact, is ward off that charge by nodding toward a prominent African-American source. Detroit begins with a brief history of black life in the North, illustrated with animated versions of images from Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series. The incorporation of internal movement to Lawrence’s paintings seems a little tasteless to me, on the level of Liberace’s addition of soaring violins to the Moonlight Sonata. Still, the pictures represent the authority the filmmakers want, backing up their forthrightly worded texts about multiple “rebellions” (not “riots”) in northern cities, and lending credibility to their assertion that an eruption in Detroit was inevitable.
After that introduction, most cultural warriors would probably let the movie proceed. But here’s what I want to know: Once Detroit gets going, to what sweet spot does it head?
I can think of three, the first of which is the place where it started.
After a riveting, extended dramatization of the episode that sparked the 12th Street riot—a police raid on an unlicensed bar—followed by rapid vignettes of the next two days of chaos, Detroit settles into its main business: placing you in the midst of the horrific events of July 25–26 at the Algiers Motel, blocks away from the epicenter. The facts of that night remain murky, but this much is clear: On the assumption that a sniper had fired from the motel, a contingent of white Detroit policemen, National Guard soldiers, and state troopers took over a portion of the complex, held everyone under arrest, and conducted a protracted interrogation that included beatings and death threats at gunpoint. By morning, three black teenagers were dead of gunshot wounds, seven black men were seriously bloodied, and the two young white women found on the scene had been stripped naked. In the ensuing series of trials, none of the officers were found guilty of wrongdoing.
What happened, exactly? Detroit gives you a highly credible reconstruction—not that the filmmakers will stop at mere plausibility. They’re content with nothing less than full immersion, playing out the incident at such length that the movie might more accurately have been titled Algiers. By means of excruciating exhaustiveness, they hit the first of their sweet spots: proving to their own satisfaction, and presumably yours, that their opening statement was correct. The white cops in the Algiers were unrelentingly racist and violent, and the black Detroiters devoid of options other than enduring their victimhood, collaborating with the cops, or rebelling.
Bigelow and Boal envision the purity of victimhood in the figures of Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), members of an aspiring vocal group who are holed up at the Algiers. They’re portrayed as achingly dewy and innocent—especially Larry, who might play at being a ladies’ man but mostly wants to lift his sweet tenor toward heaven. The self-torture of collaboration is represented by Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a security guard who believes the best way to help his people is to align himself with the inescapable white authorities and demonstrate his rectitude to them at all times. Bigelow and Boal make him out to be the type of guy who would iron his boxer shorts. You know from the start that he’ll end up betrayed and disillusioned, just as any experienced moviegoer will understand that Larry and Fred will never get back to the stage of the Fox Theatre.
Standing as representatives of rebellion: nobody. Not one of the black characters at the Algiers Motel appears to have been out on the streets.
Evil is embodied principally in the form of Krauss (an invented name), a self-righteously bloodthirsty white cop portrayed by Will Poulter, whose apple-cheeked face puts you in mind of a demonic Howdy Doody. Cast in part for the arching swoop of his eyebrows, with their hint of devious cruelty, Poulter has been directed to play Krauss with the subtlety of Simon Legree in a road show Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
I’ll have something to say about the problems the movie poses for itself by making Krauss’s viciousness so manifest that other white cops, at all levels, recognize it and are appalled. For the moment, it’s enough to say that the boldfaced and italicized characterizations in Detroit enable the movie to find its sweet spot of political righteousness.
But do we need a broadly drawn cinematic demonstration of white police villainy and black suffering, in an era when (if you’ve got the stomach for it) you can watch a video of Chicago cops summarily executing Laquan McDonald? Does this proof add anything, intellectually or politically, to the assertions in the movie’s introduction? The answer, clearly, is no—but then, the movie has other sweet spots to reach.
Despite her recent forays with Boal into ostensible realism, in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow is at heart a genre filmmaker, who revels in bigger-than-life situations and the opportunities they present for building suspense and orchestrating violent action. Her talent in this mode is formidable—which is why, I suppose, she has conceived Detroit as a drama of hostage-taking, in which malevolent forces toy with the helpless prey they’ve captured. In effect, she’s returned to the scene that established her career—the roadhouse episode in the 1987 horror movie Near Dark—with Officer Krauss substituted for the leader of the vampire gang.
I don’t object to Bigelow’s use of a real event as the occasion for seeking cinematic thrills and offering them to the audience. It’s what she does; and you can’t reasonably ask her to stop, when she’s able to make you sweat out the night in the claustrophobia of the Algiers Motel without your thinking for a moment that you, at least, could get up and leave. But her instinct for the visceral overflows her chosen subject, making a mess of the themes of Detroit.
For example, is Bigelow against police brutality, or for it? Key scenes of the film are set in an interrogation room in police headquarters, where a red stain on the wall, at about the level of a suspect’s head, leaves no doubt about the routine. When Melvin Dismukes sits in the suspect’s chair, Bigelow has you squirming in fear for him. But when it’s Krauss’s turn, she revs you up to see him get what he’s got coming.
Considering that his fellow officers share your disgust, is it possible that not all white Detroit cops are racists? And even if they are racists, might you be willing in this particular circumstance to say that they shouldn’t be too nice to Krauss? Bigelow continues to raise these questions, or rather obscure them, when she goes on to show the results of the interrogation. Krauss smirks his way out of the room behind a lawyer, before he’s uttered a meaningful word or had his hair mussed; his partners walk free as well, after a judge rules their confessions inadmissible in court on grounds of coercion; and you seethe, on the director’s cue. You’re back, in other words, to Zero Dark Thirty, with its emotional appeal to a belief in the efficacy—no, necessity—of torture. At least in that movie, people could argue (although I did not) that Bigelow dramatized the toll of torture on the practitioner. In Detroit, though, she makes you want to see the truth beaten out of these bums, and to see justice done through a legal process.
If Bigelow had chosen to explore this contradiction, rather than just elicit it, I might have said that she sheds a glancing light on a bigger issue, more proper to a story about 1967 Detroit: the emotions of the people who rioted. But Bigelow doesn’t sort through the feelings she dredges up in you; nor (despite the film’s introductory statement) does she show any real interest in a whole population’s transition from chronic resentment to conflagration.
Events happen almost by magic during the night of the police raid on the unlicensed bar. The camera quickly pans left, and an angry crowd materializes out of nowhere. The cops drive away, and a quick cut shows a rock conveniently at hand, ready to be applied to a storefront’s accordion gate. On one level, this narrative efficiency is a testimony to Bigelow’s skill. On another, it’s further evidence that her mind, despite protestations to the contrary, is not really concentrated on the active thoughts of most black Detroiters.
I think it’s on her third sweet spot: show business. If Detroit is consistent about anything, it’s playacting; everybody in the film does it. A temporary resident of the Algiers Motel (Jason Mitchell) amuses himself by performing an impromptu sketch about police oppression. The cops put on a gruesome show for their captives, and try to sound convincing when telling superiors their improvised stories. Larry, who turns out to be the tragic hero of this tale, suffers a terrible fall after he ventures overconfidently into the Algiers, when all he wants to do is sing.
That’s how Bigelow and Boal shape the narrative of Detroit: as a story of the loss of a promising music-industry career. Maybe, in the minds of people who have won show-business success, that sums up the devastation well enough. But when I look over the toll of July 23 through 27, 1967—43 dead, 1,189 injured, 2,500 stores looted or burned, and a major American city put under military occupation, never yet to recover—I suspect there’s more to this than Motown.