In the opening scene of Detroit, a large group of African Americans are rounded up and arrested en masse for having an indoor party; their crime: not having a liquor license, supposedly. They are put in the backs of paddy wagons until everyone there is gone.
On the day the film hit limited release, the president of the United States of America said the following: “And when you see these towns, and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon—you just see them thrown in, rough. I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.’ Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head—the way you put the hand over, like don’t hit their head, and they’ve just killed somebody. Don’t hit their head. I said, ‘You can take the hand away, okay?'”
I mean… I can just stop right there, right? That fact should be enough to make it very clear that this movie is disturbingly relevant in a way that not even the filmmakers could have envisioned. Detroit may not be the best film based on true events with a seven-letter title named after a real place beginning with a D to come out in the past month, but it’s sure as hell the most important.
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Release Date: July 28, 2017 (Limited); August 4 (Nationwide)
It takes a while for you to realize that Detroit has main characters. The characters introduced in the aforementioned opening have no significance to the rest of the plot, and to some extent seem to exist primarily to show an African American police officer breaking things up. It’s unique in the film. Aside from John Boyega’s Dismukes, a security guard (his second job) who gets caught up in the whole thing and is referred to as an “Uncle Tom” for believing in the fundamental goodness of the police (for a while anyway), there isn’t really anything like that. Once the riots are underway, white folks become the pretty clear enemy, and they stay that way from beginning to end. Spoiler: This is no white savior narrative.
But before I get into that (and believe me, I’ll get into that), it’s worth discussing what Detroit is actually showing: war. Kathryn Bigelow’s last two films, The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, were set in actual warzones, and this feels like a natural progression. The movie feels like it’s documenting a war. The camera shakes in close up throughout, and it’s disorienting and violent. It’s a literally dizzying reflection of the feelings of its characters, the ones who eventually come to the forefront. As the riots progress, we begin to see some of the same faces over and over again, though we also see new ones who have little significance but add to the constant tension. But because of this, I genuinely wasn’t sure if we would ever have a “protagonist.” It’s an ensemble film, so in a sense we don’t, but the film does ultimately end up following one character in particular, and it wasn’t the person I expected. (It’s not a spoiler, but I’ll leave it anyway.)
The film’s key sequence, when everything comes to a head and you finally learn what the movie is about, is the better part of an hour spent at the Algiers hotel. With an almost exclusively black clientele (minus a couple of white out-of-town women, whose presence is important for a whole host of reasons), it becomes the site for a disturbing case study in police brutality. After someone fires a starter pistol at police and the national guard on the streets, the hotel is swarmed. Now, considering this is a place with literal sniper fire, it makes sense that they would take a threat like that seriously. But what happens is more complicated than that.
As a white guy, I’m not particularly concerned about or by the police. I feel safer with police around than I do when they aren’t. I know that is not the case for everyone. I know some people feel the exact opposite way. They will walk out of Detroit and say, “Yeah, pretty much.” (History has a habit of repeating itself.) But to someone like me, the film is a genuinely frustrating one. The characters, based on real people from stories about an actual event that took place during the riots. Its development was not unlike the one that begot Zero Dark Thirty, though the methods for information gathering on ZD30 are arguably suspect, what with its particular depiction of the use and efficacy of torture… but I’m getting off track. I trust the events as they are depicted in this film. Bits and pieces may well be fictionalized, as sometimes they must be, but it seems not only plausible but probable that something like this would happen.
And that leads to a person who looks like me to feel really gosh darn conflicted. Because as the events occurred, nearly none of what happens “had” to happen. There was an “easy” way to deal with the police, who came in screaming and violently throwing people up against the wall. People could have told the truth, and I wanted to believe so badly that it would have made a difference. And the thing is, everyone was telling the truth, but no one was telling the whole truth. The not-real gun is mentioned only once; by that point, it’s way too late.
But here’s the thing: If I told the police what had happened, I have every reason to believe that they would trust me. And maybe that’s foolhardy, but I genuinely think so. I also have every reason to believe that the men depicted in Detroit (and perhaps many police officers working today) wouldn’t have believed them. If they said, “It was a toy gun and not a sniper rifle,” would that have made a difference? Certainly they didn’t seem to think so, otherwise they presumably would have brought it up in the first place. But even after the building is torn apart looking for a weapon and them finding nothing (including said starter pistol), do I think the whole truth would have saved anyone? No, not really.
And that is infuriating. But as much as it’s infuriating, I genuinely think it’s vital. And I think it’s particularly vital that white people watch it, because it’s not a movie about them. White people are not the protagonists, and their experience isn’t the focus; they exist primarily as foils to hammer all of this home. There’s not a lot of that, certainly not enough of it, but unlike a film like Moonlight, this confronts whiteness. Get Out did that in a very different way, and it was critically acclaimed for that (and everything else about it). And it stirred up bullshit controversy from folks who didn’t see it and claimed it was racist. Get Out took aim at the more subtle racism that pervades our modern society, whereas there’s nothing subtle about the actions of the police in Detroit. But you know what? There’s overt racism all over this country, bubbling barely underneath the surface. (Source: Seth Steven-Davidowitz’s Everybody Lies)
To really grapple with Detroit and what it portrays is not a pleasant thing. It dramatizes a barely historical version of the events that we see played out in the news all the time, and the inherently visceral nature of cinema (in comparison to police dash cam footage) makes you think. It makes you think about where we’ve been. It makes you think about where we are now. It makes you think about how far we’ve come, and how far we haven’t. It makes you think about what the President of the United States said seven days ago. It makes you think about what the Justice Department has made moves towards doing earlier this week.
And whether it ultimately changes anything or not, working to connect those dots and contemplate some truly unsettling conclusions is an important first step. It’s certainly changed the way I approach certain things, as I think the past however many words has made clear. I have no doubt that parts of this review are problematic, and I only scratched the surface of everything this film brings up (regarding the aforementioned white women and John Boyega’s characters in particular). And those are things I hope to talk about with people as they see the film (because they really, really should.). Detroit won’t change the world. It won’t fix racism or even put a chip into its armor. But maybe it can start a dialogue with people loathe to talk about these kinds of issues. I hope so.