Detroit (2017): Politics in the Eyes of the Beholder?

Detroit_teaser_posterWritten 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.

 

 

 

 

 

Conceptions of Villainy in The Dark Knight and Bonnie and Clyde

SPOILERS AHEAD

DunawayAsBonniePromo

While travelling I recently found myself with the opportunity to catch up on two classic films, 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and 2008’s The Dark Knight. The two works make for very different viewing experiences: the former makes a (respectful) comedy out of two ultimately tragic lives, the latter tells a gratuitously dark story despite being centre around a clown. Both films feature plenty of gunshots, but only The Dark Knight will alienate those who don’t like their stories to be drowned in action.

What unites these works, however, is that they are stories centre around “villains” (well at least The Dark Knight will be best remembered for its villain). Villains can be the best parts of films, and perhaps no narrative-universe has understood this better than Batman, entertaining viewers with characters like The Penguin, The Riddler, Harley Quinn and of course, The Joker. At the same time, writing a character as a villain can be a literary and ethical dilemma. It’s a literary dilemma as writing complex, three-dimensional humans, means not putting them in the hero-villain binary. Humans do “villainous things” out of need, due to misunderstanding, due to deep internal battles, etc.

Writing characters as villains can be a political dilemma, since the mis-categorization of humans on a good-evil binary is still applied by advocates of tough-on-crime/militaristic policies such as mandatory minimum sentences, extra-judicial detention, torture and the death penalty.

The Dark Knight is certainly not a film that ignores politics, featuring a Mayor, and more prominently, an elected district attorney: Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). For both of these figures the political issue of central concern in Gotham is crime. If Gotham is in fact New York, the city’s well-known liberal side is nowhere to be seen. Justice in Gotham is simply understood as having a district attorney who can put as many people away as possible.

Despite these foundations, The Dark Knight does not give in to promoting a right-wing, good-evil dichotomy. How it avoids doing this is fascinating. Rather than showing us the moral of complexity of (most of) its villains, The Dark Knight introduces a villain in The Joker (Heath Ledger) who “just wants to watch the world burn.” The Joker defies the categories of (realistic) evil villain and complex-human-driven-to-evil-by-circumstances. Instead, his villainy manifests itself through his expression of a bizarre system of principles. When offered an immense sum of money for his work, the Joker sets it on fire, implying that evil should be done for its own sake. Another interesting choice on the writers’ part was to explicitly deny the Joker a backstory that explains his circumstances. A recurring motif in the film is Joker monologues beginning with the line “Do you know how I got these scars?” This line, superficially links the joker with characters like Shakespeare’s Richard III and (fellow Dark Knight villain) Two-Face; characters who explain their turn to the dark side citing marginalization related to their physical deformities. The Joker, however, defies this script by offering different explanations whenever he explains his scars; he does not explain his turn to evil, he mocks the idea of explaining his turn to evil.

As The Joker baffles audiences, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s script performs a bait and switch. The joker sets up an explosive system and presents two ships escaping Gotham with detonators, telling the passengers the only way to save themselves is to set off their detonator and destroy the other ship. After long deliberation both ships’ passengers refuse to give into temptation. Most notably, the first ship to refuse is the one populated by convicts. In this moment, the Nolans spell out that the Joker is not a rule, but an exception—a cartoonish exception. Contrary to Alfred’s advice to Batman, one should not read villains as simply “want[ing] to see the world burn.” The Dark Knight has its cake and eats it too. It thrives on the portrayal of a deeply evil character (the Joker), while still making clear that real criminals are not “evil” people who deserve to be detonated.

The Nolans further illustrate the message that there is no such thing as pure, irredeemable evil through the character of Harvey Dent/ Two-Face. Dent, who is portrayed as a hero at the beginning and end of the film, nonetheless develops a disproportionate, vengeful urge to kill innocents after the traumatic experience of having his face burned while learning his fiancé has died in an explosion.

I digress here to note that Dent’s portrayal is otherwise not one of The Dark Knight’s strong suits. Despite the film’s lengthy runtime, Dent’s turn to the dark side feels rushed and forced. A further oddity in Dent’s portrayal is that his corrupting is revealed to be a plot by the Joker to show that even the purest of souls can be turned evil. While (as I just noted) the contrast between pre-trauma Dent and Two Face is stark, Dent never comes across as a kindly or idealistic figure; his virtuosity only goes so far as prosecuting criminals (he even has a Joker like tendency of flipping a coin as a way of making moral decisions). While perhaps the Nolans aim is to challenge viewers to have a sense of morality that goes beyond what is plainly stated to them by the film’s cast, the presentation of pre-Two Face Dent as a “white knight” arguably realigns the film with a right-wing understanding of crime and justice, that the scene with the detonators rejects.

 

Despite its missteps in portraying Dent, The Dark Knight should still be recognized as a work that centred its plot around criminal exploits, without touting a tough-on-crime political message. Bonnie and Clyde, though otherwise a very different film than The Dark Knight, should be hailed for achieving the same feat. The latter film wastes no time in establishing its leads as criminals (carjacks and bank robbers, to be clear, we’re not talking Joker level villainy). It also wastes no time in establishing Bonnie’s (Faye Dunaway) motive—escaping her mundane life, and perhaps (though not explicitly stated) the limits placed on her as a woman in rural 1930s Texas. Clyde’s (Warren Beatty) motivations are less clear, though his own psychological side is exposed through his moments of brooding, and his attempt to celebrate his “career” choice as a stand against bank-tyranny.

Bonnie and Clyde, however, is not a biopic that sought to capture the psychological realities of two people. The film can instead be reasonably described as tragi-comedy. It uses the comic trope of an awkwardly put-together gang featuring the adventurous Parker, the troubled but equally adventurous Barrow, a naïve but eager youngster (Michael J Pollard), Barrow’s doesn’t-want-to-be-there-daughter-of-a-preacher sister in law (Estelle Parsons), and (briefly) a couple of very gracious hostages played by Gene Wilder and Evans Evans (yes, as far as I can tell that’s her real name).

The story of Bonnie and Clyde is not simply a comedy to its viewers, but in a way, a comedy to its participants. An unmistakeable characteristic of Parker is her playful side, seen most notably when the gang ties up an unsuspecting Sheriff and takes a goofy photo with him. Bonnie and the gang’s criminality thus essentially comes across as a game of cops and robbers. In the eyes of the gang members they are not stealing and shooting so much as they are playing.

Bonnie and Clyde are ultimately assassinated by a sheriff and posse, but crucially, not mid-robbery or at the hands of someone they had shot at. Rather, their killer is the same sheriff they had earlier humiliated (a historical inaccuracy, as the posse was in fact headed by a sheriff who had never deal with them before). This was an important decision on the part of the writer. Viewers are thus not inclined to see Bonnie and Clyde as having faced their just deserts, but instead as having faced a cruel end to their game at the hands of a humourless sheriff.

There is much stylistic difference between Bonnie and Clyde and The Dark Knight, but the two share a common accomplishment—making good art about crime, without making reactionary statements about the role of crime in the real world. The Dark Knight depicts its central criminal as the twisted being that many want to write off real criminals as, while making it clear that this cartoon villain is not at all representative of crime in the real world. Bonnie and Clyde, meanwhile avoids making its titular bank robbers symbols of real world criminal danger by making their criminal exploits appear (both to viewers and the characters themselves) as playful escapades. In doing so, it simultaneously separates the character’s actions from real world criminality, while also sympathetically portraying a psychological state that some real criminals may have (a playful naivety to the consequences of their actions).

So riddle me this Batman, can we have a cinema rich in crime that isn’t tough on crime? These two films suggest we can.

 

“Horror” May be a Lowbrow Genre: but Genre is a Lie:

A Response to James’ Granger’s Toronto Star Op-Ed

It_Follows_(poster)On July 22nd, the front page of the Toronto Star entertainment section featured a small picture of a terrified Chris from Get Out, topped with the headline “Horror films are at heart lowbrow art”. As someone whose relationship to film has been nurtured by the recent emergence of “highbrow” horror, I decided to challenge my views and check out the op-ed. The side of me that wanted to have my views criticized was left disappointed.

The first half of the article builds up to being a critique of Get Out (and It Follows, and potentially other recent highbrow horror highlights). We learn that the critic, James Granger, sees the films as unoriginal—“The Stepford Wives substituting race relations for feminism.” He then makes an unrelated critique of It Follows, saying the film abandons (what he interprets to be its premise) of dealing with post-rape trauma in favour of “a mumble-core coming of age story.” Finally Granger dismisses new film A Ghost Story, simply because he knows it features a man in a two-holes-and-a-sheet ghost costume (never mind that A Ghost Story isn’t really a horror film).

How does Granger unite his, arguably idiosyncratic, unrelated critiques of these three films? He reverses on himself and praises them, saying they are “too smart…to scare the audience for very long.” Granger’s thesis ultimately comes as a surprise. His claim that horror is lowbrow art, named after a “primitive” emotion, is not meant as a criticism but a respectful observation. He is not saying that Get Out is a lowbrow film, but that it fails because it is not a lowbrow film.

Now maybe I’m not the right person to be responding to this piece. I can’t begin to relate to the kind of people who say they like amusement parks because they like getting scared, so perhaps I can’t relate to the kind of viewer who wants their horror to be as gory and traumatizing as possible. For me, the thrill of watching so-called horror-films is experiencing the psychological struggles of characters as they are confronted with exceptions to the norms of reality. The genius of much of today’s highbrow horror is how it tinkers with that formula. Get Out, for instance, depicts a fantastical-source of terror that does exist in the real world (racism), leaving viewers to juggle with the question of where the line between magic and realism in Get Out truly lies. The Witch similarly experimented with the horror formula by depicting a historical moment in which witches and other horrific beings were accepted as part of reality. Viewers of The Witch are thus in the unique position of knowing they are watching a horror story, while the film’s characters do not understand themselves as participating in one.

Another strength of “highbrow horror” is that it often substitutes graphic visuals of monsters/evil, with simple, realistic shots. It Follows and It Comes at Night, are both examples of works in which the monster was never shown to be more than “it.” In Granger’s eyes this makes the films disappointments. If anything, however, the (non)presence of “its” makes these films better as audiences are dealt with the dual horror of both knowing that an “it” exists, while also experiencing the horrific ways in which the fluid entity that is it permeates into the characters—scaring them and becoming part of them. I should add here, that as someone who partially enjoys art not just as a viewer but as a (very, very amateur) creator, there’s a certain thrill in seeing low budget horror. I might not be able to make home movies about zombies, but I can certainly be inspired to create projects featuring “its” and “sheet-ghosts.”

Is highbrow horror possible? On the one hand, recent innovations in the genre, such as the explicit conscientiousness of Get Out, the subtle horror of Colossal and the magical-historical-fiction of The Witch show that of course it is possible, even as these films are not above criticism. To call these films “non-horror” or disappointments in the genre is to miss that their strength stems from a constant eerie sense that something is not quite right, and that that may be due to a supernatural force being at play. Perhaps these films should not be considered good horror for failing to meet Granger’s standard for scariness. But if that’s the only problem, then let’s do all of ourselves a favour and stop worrying about the lie that is genre. Just as Willie Nelson should not be kept out of the rock and roll hall of fame because some voters think “country” (which is folk-rock music sung with a southern accent) is a “different genre” than “rock,” great horror films like “It Comes at Night,” should not be dismissed because they are “not scary.”