About 2 weeks ago, as my family and I were discussing upcoming movies, my aunt stated that she was not going to see Detroit since it is not produced or directed by a person of color. I understood her sentiment but I still planned on supporting the film.
Needless to say, I did not take heed of my aunt’s advice and decided to see Detroit. After the first scene, I realized that she was right. The film opened with a police raid, breaking up a welcome home party for a black man from the military. There is really no backstory of why this party is being shut down and why the black folks are already angry and frustrated with the police. Once the partygoers are forced to evacuate and, from my perspective, very politely escorted into police cars, riots ensue; the crowd gets larger, black folks are becoming angry, throwing rocks at police officers, burning buildings and looting the streets. Kathryn Bigelow (director/producer) and Mark Boal (writer) then use actual footage of the destruction of property, businesses burning down, and national calls to action to subdue the mayhem. This is the first careless part of Bigelow and Boal’s Detroit.
As a storyteller, this a lazy way of explaining the cause of the Detroit riots. Sure, the opening credits gave a brief explanation of the great migration from the south to the north and referenced the “growing tension” in race relations between blacks and whites during the summer of 1967. But from the start, Detroit failed to create the cause and effect of the tension and the experiences of black people…the black perspective was painfully absent from the beginning. Where is the footage of brutality, fear, and terrorism incited by the hands of the police? If you are going to show the aftermath, and attempt to give backstory to the Detroit riots, how can you miss this narrative!?
Now moving onto my biggest issue with Detroit.
The movie Detroit is attempting to tell the story of the unarmed black teenagers, that are held hostage at the Algiers hotel, beaten, psychologically tortured, and ultimately murdered by Detroit police officers after suspicion that one of them has a gun.
There was a contradictory way in which Bigelow and Boal decided to tell the story of the Algiers murders. Boal chose to counteract the brutality and violence of the police officers by showing that there are also good white cops too. This narrative creates the idea that the Algiers murders were just one incident, separated from the history of this country, by these 3 rogue cops, in this one town of Detroit. It felt like Bigelow and Boal wanted to constantly remind the audience that “we are not all like this” so they balanced what felt like a 60-minute scene of torture with some unnecessary scenes throughout the film featuring “decent” white police officers. The 2 notable scenes that I literally laughed out loud at were:
1. When the Detroit officers are holding the black teenagers captive, the backup patrol officers arrived and one of the white cops says something along the lines of “this isn’t right, they have their civil rights just like the rest of us”.
2. When Larry (one of the teenagers that was held hostage at the Algiers motel) is finally freed, he is met by a compassionate white police officer who says “how could anyone do this to another person!?”.
This type of white guilt needs to stay away from telling our stories.
By intentionally framing the story in this conflicting context, you are subliminally saying that although the events that occurred on this night were horrific and wrong, don’t forget about us good guys. Why is it necessary to show the good guys? This is not a story about the good guys. The fact is this story, the history of the Detroit riots, the Algiers murders, and the history of this country is a story about the cruel and disgusting racist bad guys and should not be white washed and told through guilt colored eyes. Detroit tries to reimagine the summer of 1967 ignoring the reality that these WERE the typical, accepted, and even encouraged interactions between white police officers and black people. This level of harassment subjected to black partygoers or unarmed innocent teenagers was not a foreign concept. The need to insert scenes in which white officers are shown to be “on our side” is not only historically inaccurate but self-serving.
To the producers of Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow Mark Boal, Megan Ellison, Matthew Budman and Colin Wilson) miss me with your guilt. Either tell the story, ugly truths and all, or don’t.