What’s the easiest way to say this? Detroit is made for white people. It’s made by non-black people for non-black people. Other than the actors listed, there isn’t a single black principal listed on Detroit‘s wikipedia page: not the director, writer, producers, cinematographer, editor, or even composer. That last sentence isn’t a criticism; it’s a statement of fact. When I say Detroit is made for white people, I also don’t intend that to be a fully negative criticism. Detroit is the type of movie Roland Emmerich was trying to make with Stonewall: a political statement that uses a highly charged flashpoint in cultural history to generate societal understanding across cultural gaps.
Within the first minute, Bigelow throws down the gauntlet to tell you who she’s making this movie for. In an animated prologue that borrows heavily from the styles of Jacob Lawrence, Hale Woodruff and Diego Rivera, Bigelow spells out the various movements in American migrational history, including the southern African Americans moving northern big cities to look for work while the northern whites moved out into the suburbs. She even briefly discusses redlining without mentioning the term redlining. This is all American Racial History 100 (the remedial class), facts taught to most minority people by the time the finish high school but possibly new to isolated white people who haven’t been taught about America’s racial history. Furious Style’s speech in Boyz N The Hood ran laps around this prologue because Boyz was talking to other black people who knew this shit while Detroit is talking to white people who might not.
In an interview for Do The Right Thing, Spike Lee was asked if Mookie did the right thing by throwing the trash can that started the riot that destroyed Sal’s pizza parlor. Lee commented that only white people ask that question. White people value property over lives, and the system is to protect that property. They never ask about the morality of the cops strangling Radio, but they question if Mookie’s redirecting the growing violence from the cops to the pizza parlor was a right thing.
Kathryn Bigelow wants to make sure that we understand Mookie’s behavior. Bigelow uses the real life events of the 1967 Detroit Riots, and the Algiers Hotel Incident, to explain the systemic failures that fuel race-based riots of the 60s and through Ferguson. When an African-American blind pig (an illegal after hours bar) is raided in the opening minutes of the movie, we’re not introduced to characters. These are a mass of black people having a good time and harming nobody. The only people who are singled out and defined in the scene are the cops and the cop informants. Everything else is brutality that happens to black bodies, and the righteous fury that happens in response. This but one of many systematic aggressions toward the black community, and perhaps it was one too many.
Throughout the first act, Bigelow walks the audience through the first three days of rioting. She shows the mob through a variety of Mookies breaking into store fronts, burning down gas stations and rioting in the streets. To match that Black aggression, Bigelow includes a horrorshow of police brutality that rejustifies the property damage and looting caused in the riots. Detroit picks and chooses what to depict, choosing some of the more horrific stories from the 12th Street Riots. Most infamously, Detroit briefly outlines the death of a 4 year old girl who, after hearing military vehicles rolling down her street, looks out the window and is shot by a tank. No context is provided. We never even see or hear the girl’s name. She’s just another dead black body in the 2.5 hours of depicting horror against a black society. That little girl was Tanya Blanding, and her death rang through with such horror that she became the center of a mural commemorating the 50th anniversary of the uprising. Bigelow never mentions Tanya again. Tanya is but another tragic police overstep in the face of mutual fear.
The black people that Kathryn Bigelow is most concerned about aren’t the rioters and looters who fill the first 35 minutes of the movie; they mostly blur into a black mob. The black people she does want us to know are the ones who fill the Algiers Hotel for the main event. These black people will spend about an hour being subjected to a horrific sequence of torturous “interrogation” tactics at the hands of Detroit’s most racist cops. The lead cop, Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), already killed a black guy by shooting the boy in the back as the kid was running away with two bags of groceries in his hands.
In the long middle section of the movie, three white Detroit Police officers terrorize a group of black men and two white women so they can find out who shot a pistol out the window. These men and women are beaten, punched, stripped, shot, and otherwise brutalized at the hands of the white officers in a backwards attempt to garner sympathy for the black lives matter movement. This is, essentially, an hour recreating the news footage of police using fire hoses and attack dogs on the black protesters in Birmingham. The police officers are racists and have already figured out the political games to get themselves off the hook if they go too far. If they shoot a black man, they plant a knife and blame the weapon.
To further illustrate the point, Bigelow’s fascination with the riots stops with The Algiers Motel Incident, which happened in Day 3 of a five day riot. She doesn’t finish the riots. She doesn’t care about the impacts of the riots themselves. She doesn’t comment on how much damage was done, nor how they affected the racial relations of the city. Detroit isn’t about lifting up the black community. It’s barely about the black community at all. It’s about the systemic racism that caused the black community to riot, and how The Algiers Motel Incident is a prime example of that systemic racism that happened in the middle of the riot.
Instead of focusing on the end of the riots, she focuses on the residual effects the Incident had on the victims. Through the individual victims, Bigelow almost elicits a truth about the black community, but its a reality that black audiences already understand all too well. Larry Reed (Algee Smith) was originally a part of a Motown group, but, after the incident, found he couldn’t sing for white moneyed audiences anymore. He has to live with his memories of what happened, finding solace singing in a choir at the local black church. Its a reminder to white people of the need for black-only spaces and for the idea that the black community is still living with the trauma throughout these years.
Much like Roland Emmerich didn’t intend Stonewall to be for gay people, Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t seem to intend Detroit to be for black people. She’s far more successful at identifying systemic problems and crafting a story that might be able to reach across the aisles to the unconverted. If Emmerich had crafted a movie this compelling and rage inducing, I’d not have had to trash Stonewall upon its release 2 years ago.
I can’t tell you what to think about Detroit. This is a movie about a black experience made for an isolated white audience to learn more about the black experience of systemic racism. This movie doesn’t lift up the black community so much as it shows them through their oppression to garner sympathy from people who haven’t seen it. There’s value in that – in speaking across the aisles and trying to bridge the cultural gap of this country. On the other hand, I would like to see this movie made from a black perspective talking to black audiences.