Written by: Mark Boal, Directed by: Katherine Bigalow
I walked out of Detroit prepared to give it a glowing review. Cinematically the work is inventive without being alienating. The movie starts as an ambitious imitation of a newsreel documentary, then transitions into a Jarmusch-esque story in vignette form before finally becoming a more conventional (albeit horrifying) piece. In addition to its stylings, however, I thought the film was praiseworthy for its politics. Critics had branded Bigelow and Boal’s previous work Zero Dark Thirty as torture propaganda (disclaimer: I never saw the film, plots about military manhunts aren’t the kind of thing that interest me), so I entered Detroit with few expectations. What I saw was a multi-faceted work that showed just how horrific American, anti-black, police brutality could be. While perhaps the film had some political short-comings (eg depicting the exclusion of coerced testimony in court in an exclusively negative context), it was a work that to my eyes was unequivocally sympathetic to the black American struggle.
Then I started reading critiques: the most thorough being this one by professors Jeanne Theoharis, Say Burgin and Mary Phillips. Their critique of Detroit is multi-pronged, but much of it relies on talking about the history the work omits. The story of Detroit runs roughly as follows: a disproportionate police crackdown on a black party which lacked a liquor license led members of the Detroit black-community to begin engaging in acts of vandalism and looting as an act of protest. This in turn led to a warzone like conflict between black Detroiters and white police, which in turn led to a group of black men and two white women being detained and tortured by police in the Algiers motels. The latter incident culminated with the murder of three black men. While ultimately tried, the officers involved were acquitted for their acts.
Theoharis, Burgin and Phillips see this story as incomplete. They note that the film omits detailed depiction of Detroit’s black and black-activist communities, and the non-violent organizing they did prior to the outbreak of riots. They also criticize the liquor-license raid scene for lacking context, noting that the party was to celebrate the return of two black veterans, and that the regular raiding of this club created the politically charged atmosphere that lead to the riots.
Their article goes on to criticize the depiction of the film’s black figures as not fully developed and thus “denied agency and stripped of their humanity.” The essay than makes its biggest point, criticizing the film as promoting the “bad apples” theory of policing (ie police brutality is the result of individual racist cops acting out, rather than policing being a systemically racist practice).
Superficially, the bad apples criticism is fair. The film’s central antagonist is officer Phillip Krauss(Will Poulter), who liberally uses the n-word, and rants at his black victims about how they are destroying his society while torturing and murdering them. While this cop is ultimately sent to trial by a police official who loathes him for his racism, the official’s relative “benevolence” further illustrates the bad apples theory (ie “see, some cops like this official are good apples.”) . Yet this is not the be all and end all of the depiction of police in Detroit. Krauss is ultimately put on trial with two other cops who participated in the Algiers Motel incident. One of the three kills a black man at the hotel as he was under the impression he was ordered to kill non-complient witnesses. This officer does not use slurs, and shows vivid guilt about his actions. Can this character really be seen as a bad apple? He didn’t kill due to his own racist ambitions, but rather because the culture and rules of policing gave him just enough confidence and persuasion to pull the trigger. This officer is not an exceptional figure. In addition to depicting (at-very-least) disproportionate police crack downs on the Detroit black community from its start, Detroit also shows police and national guard officials turning-the-other-way as Krauss carries out his torture operations; seemingly biased news coverage against black protestors (enabling police repression); and a police union lawyer trying to silence a black witness by bringing up his alleged past criminal record. All of these elements of the film show that the rot in American policing extends far beyond Phillip Krauss.
Even Krauss goes beyond being a depiction of a bad apple. Poulter’s naturally boyish face, coupled with his character’s period-look gives him the affect of a child in a Normal Rockwell painting. He looks like the little boy who wanted to be a police man when he grew up and had his dream come true! As the full extent of his racist side is gradually revealed it is as if the very myth of white American innocence is being exposed. Furthermore, Krauss is used to depict two different degrees/kinds of racism. In an early scene he is arrested and interrogated for a shooting in which he timidly explains that he was doing what he thought was necessary to stop crime (petty theft) and acting in a way justified by Detroit’s “warzone” environment. While we later learn he is covering up for the far more explicitly racist beliefs he holds, at this point in the film it is believeable that his racism does not go beyond the dog-whistle consciousness depicted in this early moment. Krauss’s logic in this scene serves as an explanation for systemic police racism: the prioritization of elite conceptions of law and order over the lives of marginalized communities.
While I can’t disagree with Theoharis, Burgin and Phillips’ other claims factually, I do question them stylistically. The underdevelopment of the film’s characters is not an isolated attack on the films black characters, but rather part of the film’s documentary/vignette based approach, an approach which if anything allowed the film to show multiple consequences of racism (death, loss, trauma, being framed, being pitted against fellow members of your race, etc) rather than focus on the struggles of a few developed characters. It should also be said that given the style of the film/its having no central character, John Boyega and Algee Smith’s characters were relatively well developed: we see snippets of Melvin Dismuke (Boyega)’s home and work lives, Larry Reed’s (Smith) singing to an empty theatre after his gig is cancelled, etc.
But perhaps it’s the three professors’ critique of the film’s presentation of history that really exposes the difference in how we viewed the film, and the underlying logic that influenced our respective viewings. The professors emphasize the film’s historic omissions as they fear in their absence, many white viewers would leave the film with a negative sense of the film’s black protestors. How, the critics implicitly ask, could the average white viewer sympathize with these looters if they didn’t first see them and their peers engaging in non-violent organizing? For me, it was very easy. The film opened with police reacting to an alleged petty crime by cramming multiple trucks full of black party-goers. Following this scene, with “we’re not going take this anymore” anger in his eyes, one of the party-goers smashes a store front. It’s clear from the dynamics in the scene that it’s done as an act of protest. Given that the film is introduced in an animated opening sequence as a story of black marginalization in Detroit, how could one not sympathize with the looters?
Part of me wants to respond to this critique with frustration. It’s as if the critics wanted the filmmakers to guide us by the hand with a conventional, realist film that spells out precisely why it makes sense to sympathize with the black population of Detroit.
And then I remember we live in a world where Donald Trump is president of the United States. We live in a world where white people still don’t understand (or pretend not to understand) the meaning of the phrase “black lives matter.” We live in a world where at their 2016 convention, the Democrats felt the need to pay equal tribute to violence against black people and violence against police at their convention, ignoring the blatant power dynamic that differentiates these two kinds of deaths.
Perhaps this is a world where people needed to be guided by the hand. Perhaps this is a world where white people cannot be trusted to see Krauss’ “bad apple” character, because it will prevent them from acknowledging deeper truths.
In short Detroit is a stylistically engaging film that has a lot going for it in terms of character dynamics. We see Boyega struggling through the cognitive dissonance of being a man in uniform and a member of the Detroit black community, before facing a moment (that could have been the end of the movie) where he faces a heartbreaking irony as a result of his status. We see Poulter, a truly horrifying antagonistic constructed as a blend of child-like demeanour, Hopper (yes the villain from A Bug’s Life) style authoritarianism, and overwhelming racist cruelty. And we see Smith, as a kid/young man who’s desire to sing defines him until the trauma of his torture takes it away. The film is not the flat-charactered, “bad-apples argument” about policing that its harshest critics make it out to me. Nonetheless, even as they are wrong, given the context of the world we live in, the critiques are completely justified.