Victoria Brown, Arts and Entertainment’s Co-Editor.
An incredibly difficult watch, Detroit is an important addition to socio-political cinema. Any film depicting racial tensions will always attract controversy and criticism, and Detroit is at particular risk. Not only is it based on a true story, but it has been released in the aftermath of the White-Supremacy marches in Trump’s US that undermine everything the Black Lives Matter movement stands for. It is terrifyingly relevant. The film has been attacked on many fronts, but two stand out – one side have accused it of being anti-white propaganda, while the other has accused it of being an unrealistic and disrespectful representation of the event because it was made by white people. This side has been particularly vocal in their disdain for the film being made by a white woman – Kathryn Bigelow, known for the gritty, ‘Dark Zero Thirty’ and ‘Hurt Locker’ – who they claim has no understanding of the physical and emotional trauma experienced by the victims she has chosen to portray.
Arguments like this always get to me, because it only seems to be relevant when the story is depicting sensitive racial issues. Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ wasn’t criticised for a lack of understanding despite Nolan having never served in war, nor was Netflix’s ‘To the Bone’ criticised for not understanding the reality of anorexia, despite none of the main cast having ever experienced the illness. I don’t intend that statement to cause offence, I understand that racial tensions have and continue to be a major issue. I’m just making it clear that cinematic representations of racial tensions are always criticised for minute details where other films are not.
Despite the fantastic screenplay, cinematography, and artistic direction, the socio-political weight attached to Detroit has led audiences and reviewers to view in strictly in terms of what they take from the story, based on their political views and personal cultural experience and/or background. But that is not fair to the filmmakers, the actors involved, or indeed the people the characters are based on.
I saw the film with little knowledge of the details, and I’m sure others are in the same boat. In the summer of 1967, a police raid on an African-American drinking club ignited five days of race rioting and civil unrest in the city of Detroit. Forty-three people lost their lives, 1,200 were injured, and over 7,000 people were arrested. The film opens with a short history of the African-American migration from South to North, and the prejudice that has plagued them. This sequence is an animated variation of Jacob Lawrence’s paintings of the Great Migration, and I absolutely adored it. Not only is it beautifully shot with rich colours, but it also expresses the culture that African-Americans are proud of, and how it has been constantly shot down and almost demonised since their arrival to the USA. What follows in quick succession is the African-American drinking club, the Blind Pig, whose inhabitants are celebrating the heroic return of an army veteran (played by the wonderfully talented Antony Mackie of the Marvel Universe.) This sequence sets the tone for the film. The cinematography is rich and raw, so raw that you can see minute details like the shine of sweat on the actor’s skin. The camera also stays at eye-line height so the audience feels as if they are amongst the people, almost like you’re a part of the action – this is an important artistic decision, as it means the audience cannot escape. It almost hints that the audience is complicit. The celebration is cut short by a police raid, who handle their African-American neighbours with brutality and blatant disrespect. It’s hard to watch, but it is nothing compared to the film’s second act.
Rather than focusing on a wide narrative that would encompass the staggering statistics of the riots, Detroit narrows it down to the Algiers Motel, where three young black men died from gunshot wounds inflicted by white police. Its emphasis is not on the magnitude of the numbers, but rather the violent and unjust abuse experienced by the individual victims. Bigelow’s long-time collaborator Mark Boal wrote the screenplay, and what he excels at is making us care for and identify with specific individuals who can carry a personal story throughout a massive event. This works because it rids the story of face-value representations, and takes us to the heart of individual experience, which is an important part of understanding socio-political issues.
Part of the narrative follows Larry, played by Algee Smith, who is trying to achieve his dream of being a famous soul singer in The Dramatics (who went on to be successful without Larry.) Before the Algiers Motel, Larry is about to get his big break on-stage but the audience is forced to evacuate by the police. Larry refuses to leave, and instead saunters confidently onto the stage and sings his heart out to an empty theatre. His singing is beautiful, heartfelt, and passionate, and I instantly wanted him to succeed. Part of the narrative follows Melvin Dismukes, an African-American man placed in a position of authority as a security guard. Bigelow’s casting of the stoic John Boyega was perfect for this character, as Boyega is able to portray Dismukes’ tensely difficult situation of being an outsider to both sides of the riot. Both Larry and Dismukes become directly involved in the Algiers Motel incident.
The narrative also follows white cop Krauss, and I would like to think that no-one reading this identifies with this man. Played by Will Poulter, this baby-faced cop is a cunning, manipulative, racist sociopath. Poulter deserves praise for this portrayal, as he is so disgraceful as an individual that I actually felt sick watching him. Even his voice scared me, so I cannot imagine what the real man’s voice must have been like for the real victims. Poulter explained in an interview with BackstageOL that he was “excited at the prospect of taking on the responsibility to expose a racist individual” in a film that has “so much potential for impacting social change.” The camera places Krauss in complete control of the atmosphere, and it genuinely made my skin crawl.
However, it is the portrayal of these cops that reviewers are criticising. Some are claiming that by only showing racist white men that the film is anti-white, which is ridiculous considering people know that not all white people are racist. It is insulting to people’s intelligence to insinuate that that is what Detroit is trying to say.
The portrayal has also been attacked for glorifying violence, and for being ‘one-dimensional,’ in that it only focuses on the violent racism at face-value rather than trying to address why it happens, or how to stop it. But these people are entirely missing the point of the film. The film’s main focus is on the abuse experienced by individuals and to expose the reality of what African-Americans go through, and are constantly threatened with. Bigelow, despite what some claim, is not trying to understand their abuse. She is simply showing the reality of it to people who may not know, or even deny, the difficulty of African-American life in the US. Anyone can rant and rave about why certain events happen, or how to stop it, but they never seem to delve any deeper than their own opinions. Detroit’s portrayal of the unjust, racist violence experienced by these victims is a catalyst for what Bigelow hopes can “invite a dialogue to encourage a bridge between an incredible racial divide.”
Cinema is not obliged to provide the answers to socio-political issues. The best it can do is truthfully represent events that have happened, or are currently happening, in the hopes of reaching people in a way other mediums cannot. I think Detroit does this exceedingly well. As a white woman I have never, nor is it likely that I will ever, experience life the way African-Americans have. Those who haven’t experienced it can talk all they like about why things happen and how to fix it, but unless you can begin a dialogue where you start to understand, or at least emphasise with, the physical and emotional abuse experienced by African-Americans, then we will never move forward. Detroit is terrifyingly relevant, and it is therefore a must-see for anyone who wants our world to move on from racial violence.