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.

 

 

 

 

 

Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Written by: Mike White Directed by: Miguel Arteta

Beatriz_at_DinnerWhen I walked into the cinema for Beatriz at Dinner, the film’s poster reminded me why I did not have high expectations for the work “The first great film of the Trump Era” reads the third quotation from the top. Having seen the trailer for the film I expected a work with decent-to-very good politics presented too directly and predictably to be interesting. The trailer, for those who haven’t seen it does (in hind-sight) a good job of summarizing the film, but it particularly focuses on the series misogynistic and racist comments made by Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) towards Beatriz (Selma Hayek).

I was ultimately pleasantly surprised, however. My concern was that the film would simply be a reproduction of Trump-like bigotry hurled at a decent, progressive, and mild-mannered latina protagonist: in other words, an extended conversation between good and evil. What I did not anticipate, however, is that the most captivating character in the work is not in fact Strutt, but Beatriz.

Beatriz is first seen caring for her pets: dogs and a goat, in a short but essential scene that gives us a sense of Beatriz’s intrigue independent of her role at the upcoming dinner party. Beatriz is thus already a developed character when the party begins. It is there that we see Beatriz develop another side of her personality: her rage: rage towards the casual racism of Strutt and the others at the party. Contrary to my expectations Beatriz’s rage is not just a stand- in for the collective rage of the many who participate in broader anti-elitist, and anti-racist struggles. Instead, Beatriz’s anger is deeply personal, shaped by her love for animals and her broad ambition to heal. Beatriz’s passions complicate her rage. She is unmistakably a leftist, but she is conflicted as to whether to live as a grounded hippy or a forceful revolutionary. This contradiction complicates her relationship with Kathy(Connie Britton) (the co-host/her one “friend” amongst the diners), in addition to causing Beatriz to feel great self-doubt.

Another of the film’s strengths is the obnoxiousness of the diners other than Strutt (this too is seen in the trailer, but it is overshadowed by Strutt’s bombast). Each diner has a slightly different personality (eg the immature young businessman (Jay Duplass)), yet eerily, none of them (Beatriz excepted of course) seem at all appalled by Strutt’s egotistical, macho brand of capitalism. It is also notable that the casual obnoxiousness of these guests goes un-criticized, while the mostly docile Beatriz is strictly reprimanded for her moments of impoliteness. An interesting nuance of the work is that there are moments where the only guest to see through Beatriz’s “rudeness” and engage with the meaning of her words is Strutt himself.

After watching the film I saw the poster again, this time noting that it features three guests: Kathy on the left, Strutt on the right, and of course a melancholy Beatriz stuck in the middle. Without giving too much away, I appreciated the significance of Kathy appearing on the film’s poster, opposite Strutt, as the two characters could be read as stand-ins for “the liberal” and “the conservative”—for Trump and Clinton.

Beatriz at dinner is no doubt a film of the Trump era, pitting an immigrant-Mexican-American woman against an outspoken conservative businessman. To brand the film as such, however, sells it short. Beatriz at Dinner is simultaneously a film about collectivist (eg anti-racism, environmentalism) political struggle, and a film about an individual’s search for belonging in a cruel world; Its depth and intrigue stems from how these two forms of struggle collide.

 

Fences (2016)

Written by: August Wilson, Directed by: Denzel Washington

Fences_(film)            As I gradually began the process of catching up on the 2017 Oscar nominees for best picture, I was both struck (and not surprised at all) when I recalled the lack of buzz drawn by Fences; the story of the family life of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), an African-American garbage collector living in 1950s Pittsburgh.

Fences is not a ground-breaking story about being black, poor and gay in America, nor is it a visually stunning homage to ambition and failure in Hollywood. But while Fences lacks the “wow-factor” of its Oscar-nominated peers, it has a distinct voice all the same. The film is adapted from a theatre-script, a script that playwright/screenwriter August Wilson seems to have left largely in tact. The action primarily takes place in front of an ordinary, brick-walled backyard, reminiscent of a stage-set. When a new character arrives, it’s usually with the opening of a door and an introductory line, reproducing theatrical style entrances. And, just as if the film was a play, its set only changes occasionally, forcing the actors to breathe life into the story with their performances.

Upon re-watching fences I came to understand why, in comparison to its Oscar competitors, it was not a great work. The script relies heavily on foreshadowing and exposition, meaning attentive viewers can predict where the film will go as early as its opening scene. This non-subtlety, however, is more than made up for by the impassioned, bantering-style in which the characters deliver their lines.

Troy, for example, spells out what his underlying psychological motivations are, but he does so with in his own, unforgettable way. A former negro-league ballplayer, he regularly complains about how he was better than white major-leaguer George Selkirk. Referencing Selkirk was a strong choice on August Wilson’s part, given that both now and, in all likelihood, in the 50s Selkirk was not exactly a household name (though Yankees fans may recognize him as the Canadian who succeeded Babe Ruth in right-field, performing decently, though not comparably to his predecessor). Troy’s contempt for Selkirk, along with his numerous other informed and not-so-informed baseball references (eg insisting that a black man will never make it with the Pirates, wilfully ignoring Roberto Clemente), contributes to his status as a distinct, well-rounded character; which makes up for the fact that many of his lines are overly expository.

Troy’s story is one of a marginalized man who deals with his oppression by reproducing it in his household with him as the alpha. Despite being a union man who speaks ill his boss, Troy applies a pull-up-your-boostraps approach in his dealings with his two sons, and a patriarchally-domineering attitude towards his wife. Fences, however, cannot be reduced to being a socio-political analysis of the behaviour of a certain kind of man. For much of the film Troy’s jabs at the career choices of his sons are delivered with cockiness, but not anger. And when Troy orders around his wife (Viola Davis) he does so light-heartedly, knowing full well that she won’t let him control her. Washington thus envisions Troy as a character who is troubled, stubborn, and idiosyncratic, but not tyrannical. This portrayal makes Troy’s story engaging, tragic and mysterious, even as the lines on the page are written to be a bit predictable.

Despite its shortcomings, Fences should be remembered as one of the more engaging films of 2017; think of it as a tonal mid-way point between Manchester by the Sea and Paterson, but with a noticeable amount of intersectionally-conscious socio-political commentary. If you’re looking to see some theatre without…well, going to the theatre, or if you share Troy’s view that George Selkirk is the embodiment of racial injustice, why not give Fences a try?