‘God save us from white liberals,” a black TV news anchor told me as we exited a press screening of Cry Freedom, the 1987 biopic about the late South African activist Stephen Biko. I repeated that lament to myself while watching Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. Once again, Hollywood uses history to show off liberal sanctimony, this time through a story set during Detroit’s 1967 race riots.
Bigelow, best known for the Iraq War film The Hurt Locker, uses the Detroit conflagration as a way of simplifying contemporary race issues; with screenwriter and former journalist Mark Boal, she presents Detroit’s tragedy as a panoply of victims and villains, concentrating on an episode of extreme police harassment suffered by several citizens in the middle of the riot. This macrocosm-to-microcosm set-piece typifies how media liberals look at American race relations today: They idealize disaster, while patronizing black grievance, but their main interest is professing their own bleeding-heart sympathy. (Among the ironic failures of our identity-politics-focused education system is that it persuades young people to deny artists the freedom to tell stories that cross race and gender lines. I welcome Bigelow’s expression of her humanist imagination, but she made better movies when she wasn’t so earnest.)
But the cinematic tragedy of Detroit is its half-baked cultural explanation for the riots that left 83 dead, destroyed $100 million in property, and placed America’s fifth-largest city on an unending downward spiral. Bigelow takes the trendy political perspective that any Sixties social event — even a civil disturbance — can serve as a direct parallel to the social panic of today. In this case, Detroit equals Ferguson, a naïve social-justice-warrior illusion holding that the root cause of racial inequality today is policing. (The film’s particularly offensive ad campaign shows a group of angry blacks confronting white cops in riot gear beneath the ad line: THIS IS AMERICA.) Such propaganda — now an advertising meme — distorts history in order to fulfill a liberal fantasy that keeps black Americans indebted to whites’ condescending pity.
This misstep by Bigelow, a filmmaker whose talent I used to admire, repeats the hysteria of the Black Lives Matter campaign and its white-liberal enablers. Bigelow’s shallow approach begins with an epigraph that describes 1967 Detroit as an “overcrowded” ghetto — a social worker’s cliché that misrepresents the reality of black American progress that Detroit enjoyed 50 years ago, despite imperfect conditions. Using an animated version of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series paintings, she offers a semblance of cultural authenticity. Lawrence’s visionary art expressed the large-scale, up-from-slavery yearning that took agrarian folk to the industrialized cities — from penury to working-class potential — and transformed the American North.
But Bigelow, after demonstrating her fine-arts background, shifts to facile, pseudo-political film consciousness: She recreates the riot by emulating the immediacy of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1967), the Marx–Frantz Fanon–inspired drama about the Algerian struggle against French colonialism. This seems savvy except that the Detroit riots were not a proactive revolution (despite activists’ fondly preferring the terms “rebellion” and “uprising”). Romanticizing and sentimentalizing death and destruction this way belongs to a deep-set (almost psychotic) liberal fantasy.
After her quasi-documentary introduction (including some newsreel footage), Bigelow concentrates for nearly a full hour on a controversial moment of the riot in which disparate civilians, cops, and the military are confined in a single space that becomes a symbolic pressure cooker of American racial conflict. Three white cops harass and torture ten black men and two white women (eventually killing three) in a midtown Detroit motel, a situation that John Hersey reported in The Algiers Motel Incident, his nonfiction account.
This is where Bigelow quits the Pontecorvo overview and distills her alarm into an intensified mini-exploitation flick (complete with brief female nudity). The confusing, illogical nature of this interminable sequence belongs to a third kind of art effort and exposes the film’s dramatic improbability — character motivations are poorly established, and the personalities are unreadable. Bigelow settles for racial stereotypes but skimps on characterization: She contrasts a maniac white cop (Will Poulter, whose snub nose and freckled face suggest a perverse boy scout) with a black do-gooder security guard (John Boyega, whose chunky Poitier look shifts into Denzel insolence). Bigelow is never inside the mind of the Samaritan who has unaccountable free reign during the lengthy motel assault, nor does she penetrate the inner life of the young police offender, who is merely the sweatiest white man north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Both are stick figures with human faces, facing off to exacerbate modern tensions between protesters and cops.
The white cop and the black do-gooder are stick figures with human faces, facing off to exacerbate modern tensions.
This central sequence is seriously misconceived. It feels squalid, not existential, like being trapped in a sex-and-violence thriller — I Spit on Your Grave or maybe Bigelow’s more artful vampire movie, Near Dark. The psychotic liberal fantasy of equating racism with a generic nightmare is unsettling and unhelpful. Bigelow takes an irresponsible approach to a historical event that Black Lives Matter youth may not be able to distinguish — given their own delusion that the exact same nightmare is still being repeated today.
Nothing that happens in this hellish sequence (or in the eventual, futile courtroom trial that exonerated the errant cops) conveys the boiling point of social frustration that Spike Lee caught frighteningly well in Do the Right Thing. When Bigelow depicts history through a horror-film template, she isn’t practicing Lawrence’s passion, Pontecorvo’s conviction, Lee’s agit-prop, or Hersey’s journalism; she merely abstracts reportage into artsy torture porn.
My personal memory of the Detroit riot began with a Sunday-morning radio broadcast: a pop station playing “Ode to Billie Joe.” Bobbie Gentry’s countrified cry for empathy (my first time hearing it) was interrupted by a news bulletin about the civil disturbance two blocks away that was growing larger and more dangerous. For five days and nights, free-floating anxiety filled the air, from witnessing lootings (unprovoked, just part of free-for-all chaos); the threatening sound of unexpected gunfire, then ducking for cover; the fearful sight of national guardsmen patrolling neighborhood streets and searching between houses. Those Detroiters who hadn’t experienced a police state before knew it now.
Bigelow captures none of these details, though I didn’t expect she would. The closest she gets to personal Detroit experience is a subplot about a young singer, Larry (Algee Smith), from the R&B group The Dramatics, who was one of the Algiers Motel victims. Filmmakers rarely deal with the psychological trauma of racial violence, and Larry indicates Bigelow’s sensitivity to it. But her political intention doesn’t make up for her cultural distance, which becomes apparent when Larry shifts from singing pop romance to gospel entreaty. The idea is moving, but the performance isn’t. The song “Peace Be Still” was a genuine part of Detroit’s black gospel repertoire, but it seems thrown in, as does the Motown soundtrack ranging from “Nowhere to Run,” “Jimmy Mack,” and “Get Ready” to “Your Precious Love (Heaven Must Have Sent You).” These Detroit songs have a spiritual motor, but the movie doesn’t. It putters on the fumes of liberal snootiness.
Watching black people being brutalized seems to satisfy some warped liberal need to feel sorry.
Each secular hit expressed the up-from-slavery ambition that white liberals never understand about 1960s black urban culture. They don’t hear the entreaty — the soul — even in the indomitable, infectious rhythm and verbal articulacy of pop songs. During that Algiers Motel purgatory, the Motown vitalism (and its implied orgiastic decadence) is interrupted by a John Coltrane jazz record. A character exclaiming “This is beautiful!” delivers a disquisition on Coltrane’s then-recent death and heroin-addiction rumors. It’s Bigelow and Boal asserting their stereotypical sanctimonious taste — and their weak manipulation of “Peace Be Still” confirms it.
Reducing sorrowful American history to a Victims/Villains schematic is petty, but it’s the only way Bigelow can sustain this psychotic liberal fantasy. How did she go from making erotic action movies with characters testing their gender status to the shallow politics here and in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty? In Detroit, Bigelow hijacks the Black Lives Matter campaign and constantly emphasizes other people’s pain. Like Boyega’s do-gooder, poking his nose in everywhere as an ineffectual eyewitness, Detroit is confused humanist filmmaking; it markets insurrection. Watching black people being brutalized seems to satisfy some warped liberal need to feel sorry.