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What Unfresh Hell Is This? Detroit, A Post-Mortem

By Mary F. Corey

Detroit, the latest film by Kathryn Bigelow and her screenwriting partner Mark Boal, is not really about Detroit or the 1967 uprising in that city. The film dramatizes an event that took place during the uprising when police stormed the Algiers Motel, responding to a false report of sniper fire from the hotel. The police rounded up the guests — a group of unarmed Black men and two underage white girls who were, as one critic said, “partying like it’s 1966.”

A reign of terror ensues in which the suspects are lined up against a wall and physically and emotionally tortured for much of the night and much of the movie. The police play a “death game” with them in which people are pulled from the line-up, taken into another room and “shot.” Those remaining are told that they too will die if they don’t fess up to the whereabouts of the shooter and/or the non-existent gun. The engineer of this game is a bad cop, Philip Krauss, the film’s central villain — a composite of several real cops who participated in the assault. Krauss is played by the British actor Will Poulter, who looks like a cross between Howdy Doody and Huck Finn, and who I presume was cast to illuminate something about the banality of evil. At the end of the night three young unarmed Black men – Carl Cooper, Robert Greene and Fred Temple – are left dead and the rest of the guests permanently traumatized.

In choosing to foreground the actions of one sadistic white cop during the Algiers mayhem, Bigelow has made an unfortunate end-run around the systematic nature of American racism. This film surfaces at an historical moment when white supremacist violence is on the rise and “both sides” are being blamed for the deadly violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Meanwhile, police violence against Black people is a daily occurrence: think of Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Ezell Ford, Sandra Bland, or Philando Castile. The list is painfully long. In 2016, police in the US killed 258 Black people. And on the day I saw Detroit our current president advised police recruits to “not be too nice. . . .like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head. . . and they’ve just killed somebody. . . you can take that hand away.”

The caption on one of the film’s posters is “It’s Time We Knew.” Who exactly is the “we” who doesn’t know? Which raises the larger question of who exactly the film is for. I find it difficult to imagine that people who are unaware of racist policing practices would buy a ticket to Detroit to learn more about it. So Bigelow is preaching to the choir here and I, as a member of that choir, spent much of the film’s excruciating 2 hours and 20 minutes gazing longingly at the “Exit” sign. New York Magazine’s film critic David Edelstein describes people in his screening “crying out” halfway through the interminable interrogation sequence that runs for over an hour, as he “suppressed an urge to yell, ‘Enough!’ at the cops onscreen but also at the filmmakers.”

The opening sequence of Detroit — a series of animated paintings by the great African-American artist Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) accompanied by captions detailing the out-migration of hopeful Black folks into the cities of the north and the consequent death of those hopes and those cities — seems to promise something the film never delivers. Instead, what Bigelow and Boal have done is make a movie that punishes its audience without really telling the story of the uprising.

The title of the film is misleading and suggests a missed opportunity. Detroit focuses on a small group of people who were sitting out the uprising at a cheap motel for reasons that had more to do with not being able to get across town than with politics or Black outrage or history. The film’s focus on the Algiers incident and the terror inflicted on these people by white cops fails to tell the story of Detroit in 1967. Why, in the era of Black Lives Matter, would anyone make a movie about an uprising involving 10,000 people and 100,000 engaged onlookers during which over 7,000 people were arrested and 43 people died and have it be about the victimization of some folks who weren’t involved?

I have always resisted the essentialist notion that white people cannot successfully make art about Black lives. Consider Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Or King Vidor’s 1926 film Hallelujah or Nothing but a Man (1964), Candyman (1992), or Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) or The Wire. But after watching Detroit, I did find myself wondering if the filmmakers’ whiteness could be held responsible for some of Detroit’s obtuseness and superficiality. The filmmakers seem very, very cautious about how they represent African Americans and their histories. This misguided “politeness” or perhaps cowardice, which may be racist in and of itself, means that often Black stories in the hands of white artists lack texture. Detroit reveals little or nothing about the humanity of the people involved. We rarely see the faces of the suspects who spend much of the film lined up against a wall. And the movie’s more intimate scenes – a father identifying his son’s body; a traumatized victim in the aftermath shivering in his squalid squat — suffer from a surfeit of sympathy that hovers somewhere between pity and sheer corniness. Bigelow took the wrong turn of making a movie about a radical political event without focusing on the politics or the participants.

In her earlier work, Bigelow’s dazzling use of camera movement, her gorgeous mise-en-scene felt like deliberate and passionate choices made in the service of content. In Detroit these choices feel gratuitous – no more than items pulled from her bag of tricks. How does hearing the awful sound a gun butt makes when it encounters a human skull or seeing the flamboyant flash of a bullet as it exits a gun barrel and heads toward a Black body really illuminate the landscape of injustice? Why should anybody who has been stopped and frisked by the police [1] or has experienced any form of police brutality be subjected to the unfresh hell of yet another iteration of the danger of being Black in America? [2]

I have been an admirer of Kathryn Bigelow’s work. Both her earlier films such as Strange Days and the more recent, much lauded Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty are elegantly composed, well-made, well-acted films. And yet Detroit feels like a massive misstep — a failure both as a work of art and as documentation. In his review of the film in the LA Times, critic Justin Chang refers to Detroit as a “very necessary film.” However, I think its lack of necessity is the most interesting thing about it. If this film is not needed then the question arises what is needed? What is the pathway to making art out of our lethal divide?

We do not need more narrative films about the heinous actions of individual white people in positions of power that fail to shed any light on systems of white supremacy — there’s already more than enough of that to go around on and off the screen. What we need now are movies about Black agency in all its forms.

The good news is that we are already on that path. Whatever you think about Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation he definitely showed us Black agency. Think also of Moonlight, Straight Outta’ Compton, Fruitvale Station, Get Out or Creed. I exulted when I heard that Ryan Coogler was making a Black Panther movie and was busy imagining Michael B. Jordan as Huey P. Newton when I found out the film was about the Marvel Comic super-hero. That’s fine by me. It still promises to be a movie about Black power.

The German philosopher Theodor Adorno once mistakenly opined that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. But think of the poetry in Kerry James Marshall’s paintings of Black life. Or the brilliant racial jumbling of Hamilton. This is the kind of visual poetry and surrealism that can take us “somewhere in advance of nowhere,” as the poet Jayne Cortez has said.

If the arts in general and narrative cinema in particular are going to represent Black lives and histories they need to get past social realism and offer something that documentary cannot.

In his inspired book Freedom Dreams, Robin D.G. Kelley focuses on the radical thought of Black activists who “proposed a different way out of our constrictions.” Central to his argument is the role that dreaming plays in radical activism, in part because it can take the dreamer past the limits of a hopeless reality. Kelley points to an “affinity between black life and culture and surrealism,” and cites a 1976 statement from the Chicago Surrealist Group that described Surrealism as “a revolutionary movement,” whose “basic aim is to lessen and eventually to completely resolve the contradiction between everyday life and our wildest dreams.”

Imagining the resolution of this contradiction is something narrative film can do. By resisting the urge to aestheticize both Black victimhood and white inhumanity, fiction filmmakers can make art that can empower, illuminate and at some cellular level transform what it means to invoke Black power.

[1] Statistics from the New York Civil Liberties Union state that 5 million New Yorkers have been stopped and frisked since 2002.

[2] Fruitvale Station shows us the danger police pose to Black bodies, but its focus is on a very human Oscar Grant and we mourn his death as if he were a close friend.

Mary F. Corey is a Senior Lecturer in American history at UCLA specializing in popular culture. She is the author of The World Through a Monocle: The New Yorker at Midcentury (Harvard University Press) and is currently working on a book about Black Blackface performance, tentatively titled “They Stooped to Conquer.”    

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