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.