On Detroit and the Ongoing Beatdown of Black America In the Movies…

Will Poulter and Anthony Mackie: Detroit (2017)

By: Tim Cogshell

In the city of Detroit, from July 23 through July 27th of 1967, the people rebelled against the conditions of their existence.  Some people call this the 1967 Detroit riot, it’s also known as the 12th Street riot, and the 1967 Detroit rebellion. I prefer the latter.

During the events of the rebellion 43 people died, 33 of whom were Black, 10 were White. Twenty four of the Black victims were shot by police officers and National Guardsmen while 6 were shot by store owners or security guards. Three of those killings are the subject of Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (Hurt Locker and Zero Dark 30), and her itinerant scenario writer Mark Boal ( The Hurt Locker,  Zero Dark Thirty  and  In the Valley of Elah) – and their new Dramatic / Thriller – Detroit.

Dramatic / Thriller is the marketing term-of-art being used in the promotion of the movie. We’ll get back to that notion in a moment.

The film is – generally – masterfully composed. In addition to Boal, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd returns. Ackroyd lensed Hurt Locker for Bigelow as well as United 93, Green Zone, Captain Phillips and Jason Bourne, among a number of other shakey-cam flicks that “…puts the audience in the action” as it were.  Providing a sense of Haskell Wexler-esque verite’ is Ackroyd’s speciality and that’s the central goal of these filmmakers – to make all of this seem real. Horribly real. This, they achieve. For the most part it all feels horribly real.

When it’s not being horribly real Detroit is deeply self-serving, occasionally condescending and more than a little irritating. This is usually what happens when White filmmakers decide to tell the story of a minority their ancestors lorded over during one of our nation’s many moments of exceptional cruelty to communities that are not White.  Nonetheless, the movie is very well made. Its players are all deeply committed, particularly Will Poulter (The Revenant, We Are the Millers) as Krauss, the Detroit policeman at the center of several dastardly moments during the rebellion, including the killing of three young Black men. The fact that Officer Krauss (and others) killed these boys is not disputed – the facts surrounding the killings were.

As to the filmmakers condescension and self-serving presentation, we will return to this in a bit also.  As to the movie being irritating – that might just be me.

Much of the mayhem takes place in the Algiers motel where Krauss and his cohorts, including other Detroit police officers, State Troopers and National Guardsman, engage in a brutal – and brutally depicted – series of interrogations wherein several young Black men and two young White women were abused physically and psychology and occasionally – murdered outright.

All of this good filmmaking, these extraordinary performances, are part of the problem of Detroit – and films of its kind – which include most civil rights era sagas, from Driving Miss Daisy to The Help, to most slave narratives from Mandingo to Roots (1977) to Twelve Years a Slave, to Roots again in a 2016 series, to The Free State of Jones; and to both the demonstrably evil The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith – 1915) and the well intentioned The Birth of a Nation (Nate Parker – 2016). The latter produced for the most part by Black filmmakers. These films are all so well made, so “good” that their sheer impressive presentation often obscure their effect on the communities they portend to support  (or not in the case of Griffith); that effect being to recast these communities again-and-again as savagely brutalized victims, degraded and beatdown.

Which, of course, has been true in the history of America, and well documented in the history of American cinema.  Fully documented, some might say.

These films must, by virtue of their earnestness (including D.W.’s deeply earnest intention to spread lies and hurt Black folks) contribute to the ongoing beatdown of Black America in American movies. They enfranchise the notion of degradation and defeat as the central narrative of African Americans and women and other minorities in our nation. We’ve been watching ourselves get our asses kicked, abused, raped and murdered in the movies for more than 100 hundred years. Very often we are presented these images, historical or otherwise, in films meant to appease – us – and by extension assuage the guilt of the descendants of the previously mentioned unkind majority who are often – as noted – being both condescending and self-serving in the process.

The occasional Hidden Figures, notwithstanding.

Ostensibly these films, Detroit and the like, are also meant to edify the nation about these histories, and insure that these deprivations of humanity never happen again. They don’t.  At best they entertain, which is another issue we’ll get to.  However well made these movies always fail to capture the “truth” of events like those painstakingly – expertly – captured in Detroit because, like all narrative fiction – they’re made up. Certainly they are researched deeply, in fact the exhaustive research into these events is noted in the end credits of Detroit.  It’s a moment that felt like the filmmakers saying to the audience, “…see we looked it up on more than just the internet.”  

Which they plainly did, and good for them.

Nevertheless it’s made up…  filtered, interpreted, staged and presented, to us, the audience, as history – which it isn’t.  Still, these filmmakers have decided they know what happen at the Algiers Motel that hot July night in 1967. They show us these cops shooting from the hip, planting evidence, abusing and maligning and ultimately killing. These filmmakers believe the victims and deign to tell their story – but not the victim’s way – rather the Hollywood way.  And they may well have gotten it right, including many of the facts and the tone of the moment.  For that matter – I agree with them. These cops are guilty of everything they are accused of so far as I’m concerned. But I’m a Black American from the 1960s, who knows this history as a-history in the lives of my people in this nation.  From uprisings in Philly and Harlem, to those in Watts and Ferguson (where I lived for years), these stories have been lived and told from generation-to-generation with the specific intention of keeping me and Black boys like me alive.  The idea that the police could and did kill Black folks anywhere, at anytime for any reason – or no reason at all – has been a baseline of understanding in Black communities for 400 years – give or take a week or two during Reconstruction and Bill Clinton’s first election.

The events of Detroit 67’ are not the events of a dramatic “thriller” for Black Americans, they are the events of a tragedy and still living history we know very well – thank you.

But, the events in this film, Detroit, are not actually true – at all.

Detroit is a narrative fictional movie – not a documentary.  Indeed, Detroit-the-movie, is a dramatic / thriller, meant first to entertain. Which it does.  Which is why I don’t like it and would never send anyone to see it – however well intentioned and well made. This is one level of the self-serving nature of this film – these films and filmmakers – that is in fact entertainment first – if not only.  This is meant to let the filmmakers off the hook; to give them creative license to tell these stories to their most engaging effect. But it does not.

Because Detroit is ultimately an entertainment it must do several things that are required of narrative American studio cinema. Which is why the word “thriller” is such a prominent part of the marketing.  Which is why the trailer looks and sounds like the Zero Dark Thirty trailer rather than the trailer for say, Jackie or even Selma (which I also have issues with). You’ll note the word “tragedy” is not used in the marketing of this film or it’s like.  Tragedy is the accurate description of these events and most of the events of the many slave and slave-like narratives we are repeatedly offered as entertainment. These are all horrible reverberating tragedies that devastated lives and truncated the advancement of a people. The one thing they are not – is thrilling. If you find them thrilling you’ve got a problem.

But – hollywood can’t sell tragedies that Shakespeare didn’t write, so filmmakers take these tragedies and recast them as fodder for a thriller – titillating and evocative of our most basic-emotional responses to the images and scenarios we are presented – which are demeaning and diminishing.  Which I note again may all be true(ish) to the events of the day.  It doesn’t matter because for this film – these miseries – were destined to be played as nail-biting and indeed – thrilling.

Which is by my measure is condescending at best, sadistic at worst and definitely self-serving in every case.

Detroit – with all its good intentions and little contrivances of history – with its desire to commiserate with a down trodden community even as it treads upon that community in every frame – is a movie that I didn’t need – don’t want and will not recommend even as I know Hollywood will honor it in the weeks and months ahead with all it’s good citizenships awards as it checks off a box on its list of good deeds –  #HollywoodNotSoRacistAfterAll.

The history of the events of the 67′ Detroit Rebellion are just that – history.  They are not fodder for a self-severing thriller that subjects audiences – Black and White – once again to a cinematic beatdown of Black America at the hands of a stereotyped White Americans – who we are reminded in the film – are nothing like the good White folks who made this movie as an entertaining service to the greater community. Yet – the these brutal images are only ever brought to Black Americans – all Americans – by well intentioned White American filmmakers who identify – so to speak – with our pain.

There’s an irony in that.

Detroit is a very well made movie. If you should see it you will likely come away from it emotionally tweaked – in one direction or another. If you are Black (as I am) you’ll likely feel sickened and once again reduced to little more than the collective tragedies of our history. If you are an average White person you will likely come away sickened and perhaps embarrassed, as you are reduced to little more than the heinous behaviour your ancestors. You will not “know” anything true about the 1967 Detroit rebellion.

If you do want to know about the history of these events you can.  There’s a great book called Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies, by Joel Stone (Wayne State University Press). It’s a cogent and well written analysis of the titular issues of the day. And, there is a recently produced hometown documentary account of the events called 12th and Clairmount, which was produced by the Detroit Free Press in collaboration with Bridge Magazine and WXYZ-TV (Channel 7), and a group of metro-Detroit cultural institutions, led by the Detroit Institute of Arts.  The documentary contains more than 400 reels of donated home movies from the era and narratives from people who were there – lived there – lived the events themselves. It’s not thrilling. It captures this history without degrading the victims through the adept use of the tools of narrative cinema to render us – small.

Unlike Detroit it does not use good intentions and excellent filmmaking to once again, stylishly, beatdown Black people in a movie meant to make White people feel better about themselves. 

Tim Cogshell, film critic for KPCC and Alt-Film Guide; he tweets @CinemaInMind