I had a different title for this review. I tried to be poetic and dress up my disdain for this movie with not-so-pointed words. It was “Detroit Makes America Face Its Racist Demons With Unrelenting Torture,” but my managing editor, Danielle Belton, challenged me to be as real as I was in this review. So I went there with the new title.
I went in understanding that Kathryn Bigelow’s work is typically visceral. I knew I would feel something. I just didn’t know I wouldn’t be able to contain the things I felt.
Detroit was first given to us as a movie chronicling the terror that tore Detroit apart in the summer of 1967. Because the government (or the world) refused, and still refuses, to empathize with black pain, they demonized it. Then Gov. George W. Romney (yes, he’s related to the former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney; he’s his dad) decided to send the National Guard to join the police in bringing some “order” to Detroit, but as we all know, in modern-day America, that only agitates protesters more. It almost creates a war as helmeted soldiers and army tanks line neighborhood streets.
Detroit was left burning as a result of a dangerous mix of a neglected city leaning on broken promises, increased police brutality, an uprising of black people and smothering fear on both sides. It was five days of civil unrest that left 43 people dead, thousands injured, and 2,500 businesses burned or looted.
Bigelow’s movie didn’t give us details into the uprising, only a quick overview of how it started at a local unlicensed bar, the Blind Pig. Black folks were celebrating a soldier’s return home, and the cops came to shut it all down. But it didn’t stop there. They lined up the bar’s patrons on the streets, and passersby demanded to know why. Bigelow’s film, however, chose to shine a spotlight on the torture at the Algiers Motel that left three young black men—Carl Cooper, age 17; Aubrey Pollard Jr., age 19; and Fred Temple, age 18—killed in cold blood, three days into the protests.
When I say “spotlight,” I mean it. The light burned into the deepest corners of black trauma, and the meat of the movie left viewers with our tear-stained faces pressed against the motel’s walls, pleading. After what felt like hours watching the racist Detroit police play a “death game,” during which they took each of the “suspects” into a separate room and violently threatened their lives and, in one case, took a life, my body reacted.
I was asked to come to Detroit to screen the movie by Annapurna Pictures and obliged. Otherwise, I likely wouldn’t have paid for this trauma. Sitting in the theater felt like the torture I watched on-screen. Each time one of those young black men pleaded to live, was beaten or shot at, I cringed. At one point, I involuntarily stood up and left the theater. My heart raced, my eyes were bloodshot and my hands shook. I was having an anxiety attack.
After spending the better part of three years covering and watching countless news stories with the same plot—black person is unarmed, black person is killed by police officer, police officer is not guilty, racism wins, black people are forced to live on through the trauma and confusion—I’ve become weary of the recurring violence and over-policing of black bodies. At that moment, I’d had enough. And if you go see this film, you will likely feel the same. It’s the equivalent of watching the Facebook Live video of Philando Castile taking his final breath ... for two hours.
I collected myself and decided to finish the movie. When I came back into the theater, we’d finally made the journey out of that hotel. Watching the subsequent trial was like seeing Darren Wilson, Daniel Pantaleo or George Zimmerman return home to live out the rest of their lives believing they’re not responsible for the loss of the black lives they stole.
Cooper, who was accused of shooting a toy pistol out of the Algiers Motel window that night in 1967, said it best in the movie: “Being black is like having a gun pointed at your face at all times.” And while Bigelow certainly delivered that sentiment, she missed a few marks.
The biggest, and the one that’s already been called out by many media outlets, is the erasure of black women. Sure, the movie was focused on the torture at the motel, but to decide that black women’s role in the uprising was only that of a mother crying in the hospital or as beautiful arm candy at the bar is irresponsible. Black women have always carried oppression and the movement on our backs—from the Middle Passage, to slavery, to “freedom,” to Jim Crow, to Black Lives Matter. We’re the caretakers and the rebel rousers, but in Bigelow’s American history, we’re not even the backdrop.
Detroit deserved more human moments beyond the extended torture scenes. Like when killer cop Officer Krauss (played by Will Poulter) was verbally reprimanded for killing an unarmed black man for stealing groceries, we were able to see Krauss’ frustration and confusion upon realizing that in 1967, black lives actually did matter to some people.
Or when Algee Smith’s character—the former lead vocalist of the Dramatics, Larry Reed—showed severe desperation in making his dream of being a performer a reality, despite the city literally burning around him. We got to see that despite all odds, black people still have the heart to fight for their dreams. It was after the torture that we saw Reed’s post-traumatic stress disorder change his dreams of singing into an outright refusal to entertain anyone white.
“I’m not singing so these pale motherfuckers can dance,” he barked back at his bandmates during a very important audition. He was broken. He’d witnessed homicide firsthand and the unjust hand of the law, all in one violent night of terror. How was he was supposed to move on when he still lived in the same city and walked the same streets where his trauma was birthed?
Because we’re supposed to keep on living. We fight to make sure the world recognizes that black lives matter, but the lives we have to endure are exhausting. Just as with this film. I’m tired of black people who are clearly victims being demonized and almost put on trial for something that was done to them. I’m tired of having all the proof in the world that someone was murdered by police and there’s no one to pay for it. I’m tired of having to survive instead of live.
John Boyega’s character, Melvin Dismukes, is a conundrum for me. He appears as a stand-up guy hired as security for a grocery store. He brings the National Guard coffee, stops them from roughing up a young and ungrateful kid, and shows up to the Algiers Motel amid the violence and confusion and remains unscathed.
Imagine a black man with a shotgun showing up to a crime scene and stepping into a position of authority. Doesn’t make sense in 1967 or 2017. Boyega said of his character, “He went to the Algiers to serve as an unspoken guardian to those young men, thinking he could do good by being present to look after them and ultimately, being blamed for trying to do the right thing, not only by the law, but by his own community.”
Dismukes is a real man who often teetered on the line between being with his people and obeying the law. We could have used more insight into this man and his tug-of-war of emotions.
It’s a good thing Bigelow tapped The Root’s founder and chairman, Henry Louis Gates Jr., to add accurate historical context, but maybe she should have leaned a little bit more and offered more seats at the table to fully realize the complexities of blackness under oppression. The riots of 1967 Detroit are a hefty load to take on, which is likely why Bigelow chose the Algiers Motel incident.
We are constantly reminding the world that black lives matter and, as such, requesting that allies (outside of black folk) do the same. Bigelow is taking that on, but you do have to wonder ... is this her story to tell?