Detroit: A Non-Review of a Movie I Won’t be Seeing
David R. Weiss, August 26, 2017
As someone who’s spent the past couple years intentionally educating—challenging—myself to think more clearly, carefully, and critically about race in the United States, I was quick to put “Detroit” on my list of summer movies to watch for.
Then I read a short piece by Frank Joyce on Salo.com (re-posted from Alternet): “Detroit is not a movie.” The essay begins, “Are you thinking of seeing Kathryn Bigelow’s movie ‘Detroit’? Don’t. Read John Hersey’s ‘The Algiers Motel Incident’ instead.” So I did.
But back to Joyce for a second. I later learned he’s spent the past 50 years as an anti-war and anti-racism activist based in Detroit. In 1965—just two years before the police murders that are the focus of the film—Joyce (a white man) founded Friends of the New Student Movement, with the stated purpose to raise awareness about the white racism that “permeates the economic, political, educational, religious, and social institutions of the entire nation.” Fifty-two years ago FNSM pursued systemic change because “black people will be free only when they equitably control . . . those institutions which influence their lives.” Joyce has been relentless enough in his anti-racism efforts that a Google search of him returns numerous hits from alt-right/white supremacist sites, where he is regularly attacked . . . venomously.
The thrust of his complaint about the movie is that it presents “a case study in the limits of the white gaze,” reducing the systemic racism that produced the city-wide unrest as well as the murders at the motel to (as always) “just a few bad apples.” Because even white people can afford to cringe uncomfortably (or is it appreciatively?) when the stories of injustice don’t damn the entire system.
His essay is a bit rambling in its rant, but at the very end he writes crisply, “So, you may say, don’t be naïve: what can you expect from Hollywood? More, that’s what. If you want to see a better example of racial truth from a Hollywood director, watch ‘13th’ by Ava Duvernay. It’s available on Netflix.”
Reading John Hersey’s book, written in 1968, just a year after the murders, was a challenging experience. Described on the cover as “a dramatic act-by-act reconstruction” of the incident, it’s an assemblage of fifty-two short chapters with 333(!) sub-sections, each containing one piece of the story. Based on personal interviews, court testimony, and newspaper accounts, I often found myself lost in the details. Hersey rarely pauses to set things in context; writing so soon after the events, he presumes a general knowledge foreign to me.
Nevertheless the impression given by the first person testimony of nearly all involved was powerful. Brutality, humiliation, anguish, contempt, arrogance, all come through with visceral verbal immediacy. I was most struck by how much of the narrative neatly anticipates what cell phone video reveals today. Our technology has advanced far more quickly than our social attitudes—or social systems. I suspect most black persons wouldn’t be similarly struck—except as it would confirm what they’ve known all along.
Then I read “‘Detroit’ Is The Most Irresponsible and Dangerous Movie Of The Year,” on Huffington Post by Jeanne Theoharis, Say Burgin, and Mary Phillips, all scholars of the Civil Rights Era (and at least one of them black). Like Joyce’s piece, this essay severely critiques the movie for leaving out critical events and context. Admitting the film “contains many black people,” they lament, “black people in the film are rendered largely as paper dolls—angry rioters, bloodied victims, or sad relatives—with little community, politics, work, joy, or even back story.” After explaining what’s at stake in a number of serious omissions in the film—which leave the viewer without the resources to understand the history or the systemic forces at play—they contend that the film’s forty-minutes of scenes of police brutality and torture become an “almost pornographic . . . fetishization of violence” that works to “normalize black death.” They charge, “ultimately what Bigelow (director) and Boal (writer) offer viewers is a public lynching of black men.”
Finally, I read “Detroit: a film by white people for white people” by John Sims, multimedia artist, writer, and Detroit native (who notes he was “in Detroit in utero” at the time of the Algiers motel incident). Along with the others, he criticizes the title itself—clearly a marketing choice to evoke the riot/rebellion that rocked the entire city in 1967, although the film focuses narrowly on one incident without rooting it in the larger urban/national unrest. He decries what he calls “the excessive humanisation of white cops” because it’s “unbelievable, unfair, and is used as a way to shift blame to a few bad guys, obfuscating the real culprit—the whole system.”
Sims then observes, “With the hollow character development, the minimal political context surrounding the rebellion, and evidence that the writers may love Motown’s music more than its people, I struggled to find an emotional connection deep enough to offset the pornographic violence featured in the film.” In fact, he states, “I have to wonder if this Passion of Christ level of brutality is what drives the white guilt that fuels temporary race-based empathy.”
As someone convinced that most of Christianity plays up the Holy Week mayhem for a very unholy adrenaline rush that misshapes our understanding of the cross (and of Jesus!), Sims words here strike me as near prophetic. There is something spiritually-emotionally twisted in using extended images of brutality to stir people to empathy (or faith) via guilt. Such tactics “barter” with our base instincts in pursuit of higher ideals, but most of the time these deals only feed our appetite for adrenaline—appetites which fall far short of a hunger for justice.
So, I’ve taken “Detroit” off my list of must-see movies. I learned plenty from the reading I did. I encourage you to read the Wikipedia entry on the Algiers Motel incident (it’s lengthy, but well shy of Hersey’s 300-plus page book). And then go through each of the three articles linked above. By the time you’re done (certainly in less than the two-and-a-half hours of film), you’ll not only learn something about this important chapter in race history, you’ll learn even more about the choices that matter in how we tell history. And whether those choices challenge us sufficiently so that we don’t continue to repeat it.