I Understand Why The DETROIT Movie Was Made, But I Can’t Recommend That You See It
(Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for Annapurna Pictures)
Despite living away from my native Detroit for nearly a decade and a half, I stay connected to the city through frequent visits to my immediate family and through friends on social media. As of late, I’ve heard quite a few mixed-to-negative feelings about the upcoming DETROIT film from native Detroiters, so my first goal when touching down at Detroit Metro Airport on a paid press junket for the film was to figure out why so many people are taking umbrage.
The very first person I asked was the Lyft driver – a brother just a few years older than me – who took me from the airport to my hotel. He was concerned that DETROIT – a film centered around the racially motivated five-day rebellion in July 1967 that resulted in more than 40 deaths and thousands of destroyed buildings – might disrupt relations between native black folks and the city’s “new” white people, who are ostensibly at the helm of the city’s “revival” that people have been waiting for since I was pushing a big wheel.
On the driver’s behalf, I asked DETROIT screenwriter Mark Boal during a press conference with the cast and creators of the film if he and director Kathryn Bigelow had given thought to how such an inherently incendiary film would be received by an increasingly gentrifying Detroit. He admitted that he doesn’t know much about the Detroit of 2017, reinforcing that the story itself needed to be told. “A lot of people from [Detroit] don’t know the story even if they grew up here,” he said. “If that’s true in Detroit, it’s certainly true elsewhere.”
As I wait with bated breath for the movie’s Aug. 4 wide release so everyone can see and discuss it, I’ve zero doubt that DETROIT will anger many – especially black folks – for what will likely be several different reasons. In the film, the ’67 rebellion serves as a backdrop for the so-called Algiers Motel incident, where three black boys were killed, and seven black males and two white women were brutalized in one night by white officers from the Detroit and Michigan State police departments, as well as the Michigan Army National Guard.
The film depicts a borderline torture-porn degree of brutality that puts it in the company of films like Rosewood and 12 Years a Slave, in that will make you want to go into the office the morning after watching and push fucking Todd in accounting with his fucking chinos and fucking tucked-in Polo shirt out of the motherfucking plate-glass window on the 12th floor. I have a strong constitution for hard-to-watch movies, but even I had to pass my ticket to the world premiere off since there was no way in the name of Vishnu that I would sit through it twice in three days. There were many shed tears and some walk-outs at the screening I attended. It’s rough like that.
For us native Detroiters, there’ll certainly be an element of aggravation at the fact that there’s an eponymous movie representing the city in such a harsh, if historical, light, considering that the media has spent years portraying Detroit like its Mogadishu in the early 1990s. Sure, it’s a historical film depicting events from 50 years ago, but Detroiters are fiercely defensive people and this is just another thing that will make us want to throw hands at shit-talking outsiders.
There are numerous moments throughout DETROIT that might anger viewers less in a pre-Mike Brown zeitgeist: There’s the depiction of a police officer under investigation for murder who is allowed back on the street in active duty. There are the while girls boldly flapping their gums to white police officers under the (correct) assumption that they will, indeed, survive the night. There’s also a white savior component to the film that will rankle some people; sure, very few people believe that all white police officers are evil, but the portrayal of sympathetic white cops will certainly make people feel Some Type of Way™ less than two months after the acquittal of Philando Castile’s killer.
Folks have also made noise about the lack of black women in the DETROIT cast – even I was surprised when I couldn’t find one in the press materials. Samira Wiley pops up looking fly for about seven seconds, and every other sista in the film pops up in a SAG-AFTRA minimum-rate capacity. However, Black women simply weren’t present at the Algiers Motel during the incident. Considering the film’s brutal content, we shouldn’t want black women to be unnecessarily injected into that.
All of the aforementioned issues dovetail into one of the film’s chief critiques: should Bigelow and Boal, both white, be the ones to tell such a racially charged story? Some believe that protracted police brutality against black men is a bit voyeuristic when viewed through a white lens, and have increased strictures against the filmmakers’ every decision as a result. Was the black kid getting beat that harshly in real life? Or did these white folks just do it for effect?
When asked about this at the press conference, Bigelow said she had a very “lengthy conversation with myself” before taking on the movie. “This story needed to be told, and that kind of overrode any other hesitation,” she said. “I thought, ‘I have this platform and opportunity, and the story needs to see the light of day.’ I took advantage of that while, at the same time, realizing it’s a concern and challenge.”
Like Bigelow, I believe that someone needs to tell the story…especially considering that, like Boal said, many native Detroiters don’t know much about the ’67 rebellion. The extent of my own verbal history lesson was my mother explaining that, when she was 14-year-old, my grandmother had to threaten death to her and her siblings if they even thought of running to 12th Street to get a “free” television like the neighbors across the street did. Would it have been better for John Singleton or a Hughes brother or Ava Duvernay to tackle the story…? Perhaps, but that would require waiting around for a story that may never actually get told on screen.
Stepping back from the list of gripes, if the Algiers Motel incident had to be filmed by a white director, I’m glad it was Bigelow. I will forever be a Point Break stan, and DETROIT contains some of the same masterful directing and sound editing that created the near-masochistic levels of tension she employed in her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker.
The set, mostly shot in and around Boston, actually resembles Detroit; Motown music is used to great effect, and the acting should generate Oscar buzz: Algee Smith, who played Ralph Tresvant in The New Edition Story, serves as the film’s emotional center and is destined to be a true star. And, because he does such an amazing job, you’ll truly despise every hair on the comically arched eyebrows of Will Poulter’s Philip Krauss, the film’s primary antagonist. (The British actor is actually extremely genteel in person.)
I won’t dismiss as unjustifiable the inevitable firestorm of polarizing opinions about DETROIT. But my primary concern is that viewers – especially non-black ones – don’t leave the theater thinking that the half-century-old true story it depicts is ancient history and outside of the realm of reality in a 2017 in which our president marginalized an entire fucking minority group with his Twitter fingers this week. The Ford Galaxie 500 police cruisers in the film may have been updated to Ford Fusions, and the “boys” and hard-r “niggers” not uttered as liberally by cops. But it takes little more than a glance at the national news on any given day to realize that racial relations among police and black folks have a long way to go.