'Detroit' And The Problem With Watching Black Pain Through A White Lens

Important ideas are introduced, then frustratingly forgotten, as the bodies pile up.
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John Boyega in a scene from "Detroit."
Annapurna Pictures/YouTube

White filmmakers can tell black stories, and they can even do it well.

But “Detroit,” Kathryn Bigelow’s latest drama, epitomizes the complications that can arise when a white filmmaker uses the spectacle of black pain as an educational tool. It highlights the need for nuance in telling stories about black brutalization, and the danger of the white gaze.

Written by Mark Boal (who wrote Bigelow’s last two highly-lauded films, “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty”), “Detroit” is set during the city’s historic 1967 riots, and tells the true story of a police raid at the Algiers Motel where two white women and several young black men were terrorized and three black teenaged boys were shot and killed. The cops indicted for the deaths were later acquitted.

“Detroit” has all the elements of what should make a stellar film: an Oscar-winning director, a superb cast featuring some of the most promising young black actors in Hollywood (John Boyega, Anthony Mackie), and a harrowing true story revealing a dark chapter of this country’s past.

But something is off. 

Perhaps it’s Bigelow’s trademark shaky, stomach-churning, brutally voyeuristic style which here, in moments of violence, feels more perverse than poignant. Or maybe it’s the hollow and often unnatural dialogue ― at one point in the film a white police chief calls one of the murderous cops a “racist f****,” a strangely self-aware and vaguely anachronistic line. Or, possibly, it’s the fact that the city of Detroit itself is seems conspicuously absent, an anonymous extra in a film where it should take center stage. We see the looting, the brutality, but despite 30 minutes of plodding exposition, little historical context for why the city is burning.

There’s also something else, something harder to pinpoint, something tied deeply to my own personal understanding of what it means to be black in America, that made watching “Detroit” a viscerally unpleasant experience. Sometimes it is good, even necessary, for a film to make one uncomfortable. But “Detroit” wasn’t unpleasant in the way that, say, Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave” was unpleasant. There was absolutely no sense of catharsis. 

The movie opens so many doors but never quite walks through them. With John Boyega’s character of security guard Melvin Dismukes, it brings up the question of respectability politics, of black complacency in the face of white supremacy. The cops’ brutal, disgusted and sexist reactions to two white women in the company of a group of black boys echoes a history of violence against black men in the name of white womanhood. All of these are ideas which are introduced, then frustratingly forgotten, as the bodies pile up.

“The movie opens so many doors but never quite walks through them.”

“Detroit” is a horror movie. Like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” racism is the big bad monster. The only difference is that, here, nothing new is revealed about the nature of the beast. As film critic Angelica Jade Bastien put it in a recent review, the film reveals “the horror of white filmmakers taking on black history and the violence perpetuated upon black bodies with an unwavering eye yet nothing to say.” 

I don’t subscribe to the idea that a film dealing with racial themes or starring a predominantly non-white cast is immediately invalidated once it has a white director. The story, and the legacy of racism in America in particular, is one which we have all inherited and must engage with. And therefore we need white filmmakers willing to take on projects that reflect worlds and perspectives vastly different than their own.

In a New York Times interview published Wednesday, Bigelow herself admitted that she knew she was entering new, unpredictable territory as a white filmmaker telling a story about race. 

“If you don’t face the sort of, the travesties that are constantly recurring in this culture,” she said, “How are they ever going to change?”

Bigelow, for her part, seems to have made the effort to approach the subject matter with respect ― John Boyega, one of the few highlights of the movie, recently defended Bigelow in an Indiewire interview where he revealed that she was highly collaborative with the black actors on set. If Bigelow can be commended for anything, it’s for gamely tackling a subject matter that few white directors with closets full Academy Awards ever have or ever will. But something to acknowledge is that sometimes, in “doing the work,” allies and artist can fail, and hopefully learn from their failures.

In processing this movie, I thought about the first time I watched the video of the Rodney King beating in its entirety as a teenager. I thought about how shocked I was by those seven brutal minutes, how I hadn’t known just how brutal the beating actually was. And then I thought about the fact that the cops in question got off. I thought about the utter pointlessness of the spectacle of King’s brutalization.

“Detroit” is the cinematic equivalent of the King beating, of any number of grainy viral videos featuring innocent black men and women being shot in the back, in the chest, in the head, riddled with bullets for looking “suspicious,” their battered bodies left out in the sun as a testament to a desensitization to violence against black bodies that goes unacknowledged.

“Detroit” tells a story that many black people already know, have known in some sense for all their lives. 

“I didn’t learn anything new about police brutality or the black experience from 'Detroit.'”

In other words: “Detroit” is a movie for white people. For some white viewers, Bigelow’s film may invoke horror, even righteous anger. But with a white audience so firmly at its core, the images of violence in the film, designed to be visceral, in your face, to expose and inspire outrage and disbelief, inspire nothing in me but pessimism and spiritual exhaustion. The violence isn’t shocking. It’s just sadly familiar, and that isn’t interesting or illuminating to me as a black viewer in 2017.

 I didn’t learn anything new about police brutality or the black experience from “Detroit.” What I did learn was that, the racial disconnect is real. I learned that while, for me, “Detroit” felt like nothing more than well-shot torture porn, for many white viewers it could be an unsparing introduction to the notion that racism actually exists, a terrorizing explainer on why racism is bad. I’m not sure how to feel about that. I’m not sure what to do with my own pessimism with the idea that this movie exists, that it’s aim feels not only uninteresting but futile. 

Ten, maybe even five years ago, “Detroit” might have been the true lightning rod it wants to be. But today, its obvious aim to conjure white empathy feels obsolete and redundant when one considers the countless images of real black brutalization that periodically flood our screens.

What I’ve taken away from “Detroit,” if anything, is that part of the importance of movies about race is not merely our personal reactions to them, but the way our reactions, our experiences, crash into one another. Some white people like to call this “starting a conversation.” 

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Aerial view of burning buildings in Detroit on July 25, 1967 during riots that erupted in Detroit following a police operation.
- via Getty Images

But if we’re going to have a conversation, a real one, white artists like Bigelow and Boal will need to acknowledge and consider the criticisms of their work. Marginalized groups are often asked to depersonalize their reactions to art, even though the act of consuming art is a deeply personal experience. We’re asked to be objective. We’re asked, “if this film was made by a black director, would you still take issue with it?” This is a loaded question, one that lacks context and nuance. For one thing, it suggests that the white perspective on a film about race can be informed no matter the emotional response, while a black perspective cannot.

As of Thursday, “Detroit” holds a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I find this incredibly telling, given the fact that this is a rating generated by reviews written by mostly white critics (the same white critics who hyped up Nathan Parker’s mediocre “Birth of A Nation” at Sundance last year). 

It will be interesting to see who this film will ultimately resonate with. There are, of course, black people who will see this film as powerful and affecting, and others, like me and many of my peers, who will feel that it lacks depth. The thing is, though ― give us space. Give black people space to feel. And don’t criticize us for feeling. Because to deny us the right to our human emotions is to deny us our humanity. And that is, after all, what got us into this mess in the first place.

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