Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow’s latest collaboration with journalist/screenwriter Mark Boal, opens with a short animated sequence detailing the Great Migration of early 1910’s to the ‘60s. And as though from a diving board into the pool, we are thrown from this set up to the narrative; onto the streets of Detroit on July 23rd, 1967, just minutes before the police raid of an after-hours club — a ‘blind pig’ — that led to the 1967 Detroit Rebellion, largely regarded as the worst among hundreds of other riots across the U.S. in the ‘60s. It would last five days and take forty-three lives; of the forty-three dead, ten were white and thirty-three were black. Of the thirty-three, three were shot and killed by the Detroit Police Department (DPD) at the Algiers Motel, an incident that would become infamous but not anomalous in its details (or the lack thereof) and its aftermath. And the deaths of Carl Cooper, Aubrey Pollard, and Fred Temple (17, 19, and 18 years old, respectively) at the Algiers is the central narrative of Bigelow’s fictional account.
As many critics have pointed out, Detroit’s failures are easy to spot. Anthony Lane of the New Yorker called it a “moral failure” and that “From the start of the film [Bigelow and Boal] treat the black residents of Detroit, whose lives they dramatize, as an indiscriminate mass of people […] — they exist only in relation to their oppression, to their victimhood.” John Semley of The Globe and Mail wrote, “The film stops short of any full-throated critique of the police force, making a point of showing good, honest Mayberry-esque cops among the vile outlaw officers.” Others, including Julie Hinds of Detroit Free Press, have legitimate misgivings about the film, especially regarding its ending — the film summarizes the aftermath of the Algiers Incident in a slideshow.
I also believe that Detroit is incomplete. As Lane points out, the shallowness of the black characters reduces them to mere points at which economic and cultural factors have collided and at which police brutality occurs: we know little to nothing of Detroit and its black citizens pre-July 23rd, 1967. Bigelow’s attempt to capture what it must have been like inside the Algiers Motel succeeds — the claustrophobic atmosphere work side by side with cameras moving at such a speed, distances, and angles that bring the violence and agony to life — to a degree that it is detrimental to the actual story. That is, if we are to agree that the story of Detroit in ’67 is less the violence but the city’s black citizens and their lives. (It’s difficult not to see the irony — Detroit’s economic downfall was brought largely in part by its tremendous success in making America a motor country.)
Yet I balk at the notion that Detroit is a complete failure. In bringing the story of the ’67 Rebellion onto the big screen, Bigelow spotlights a particular moment in American history that has broader meanings for us today. Despite the nagging sensation that it’s only a certain part of the population that need reminding, Detroit succeeds in reminding people of the long history of police brutality.
A particularly poignant scene in Detroit occurs halfway through the movie. Julie Ann (played by Hannah Murray), one of the two white teenage girls captured alongside Carl Cooper, Aubrey Pollard, and Fred Temple, in response to “You’re having sex with niggers,” says, apparently in disbelief and horror at the absurdity, “It’s 1967, asshole.” The confidence and naiveté with which these words are uttered is as baffling as it must have been then as it is now: it is a frustrated answer given by one frustrated, inconvenienced, whose lived experience has kept him/her from the realities of history — namely, that if it moves, it moves precariously slowly. One can’t help but think of Emmett Till, whose tragic death occurred a mere decade prior to the Algiers Incident due to a false accusation made by a white woman; one can’t help but imagine someone saying, “It’s 2017, asshole,” as a well-meaning but utterly inadequate answer to the problems Black Americans face everyday.
Bigelow and Boal may have failed to tell the full story of the Algiers Motel Incident. Yet, with so much selective amnesia going around the U.S. today, I wonder how much of the failure is Bigelow and Boal’s and how much of it is collective.