On Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit

I finally saw Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow’s film on the Algiers Motel killings, and I have to say I came out of the theater quite shaken by it–it’s visually exhausting, thanks to the frenetic, riotous movement of Bigelow’s camera throughout. And a viewer familiar with the Algiers Motel killings can only watch the unfolding drama with an awful sense of dread, knowing as one does in advance the fate of the dead, and the rough order in which they will die. This puts an extra dramatic burden, at least for me, on the necessity of bringing those victims to life, of making them more than just the soon-to-be-dead-of-the-Algiers, which is a burden that the film doesn’t meet. So even though it’s emotionally grueling, given the brutality it depicts, there’s also something unfeeling about it.

I would also just say, for starters, that whenever you put “Detroit” in the title of a thing (see also: Detroiters) it’s a good sign that the thing in question is not going to be about Detroit in any serious way, but just some generic urban placeholder for something else: “race relations,” “urban crisis,” “gentrification hijinks,” etc. This is not new or unique to Bigelow’s film–elsewhere, I’ve written more about the way in which Detroit serves as a metonym for various other national fantasies or fears. This can, of course, be true of any city but the effect is intensified in Detroit, the film, which uses an introductory Jacob Lawrence montage to introduce the rebellion as an explosion of dashed black hopes and reactionary white backlash in the wake of the Great Migration. Detroit, in this film, is every northern city, which isn’t untrue. But because the film lacks much political perspective, and because of the narrative restrictions of depicting an hours-long ordeal in a single room, and for some other reasons (see below), Detroit as a distinct place, landscape, economy, culture, and so on, never really appears. There’s not even a midwestern accent in the whole film.

The film’s feeling of placelessness, along with its almost non-existent characterization, really made me appreciate John Hersey’s narrative decisions and granular focus on the participants’ backstories in The Algiers Motel Incident. (I wrote more about these here, in Guernica) The film’s focus on a singularly talented victim, the Dramatics singer Larry Reed, really makes the movie into the sort of “tragedy” Hersey said he wanted to avoid: a routinized spectacle of black suffering, which predictably elicits what Richard Wright called the “consolation of tears” in its audience. Everyone in the movie feels like a myth or a caricature–the innocent victims, the monstrous cops. The only exception–and this is a telling misstep by the writers–is one of the white characters, the brave white maybe-prostitute, Juli, who talks back to the police.

This, to me, misses a big part of what makes the Algiers Motel story so compelling and scary to me: the normality of the participants, which is what Hersey emphasizes. The victims for him were just regular kids, or at least they were trying to be, in a city and country determined not to allow them. And the cops weren’t uniquely awful people, like the villain in the film. What’s worse is that they were rather typical white Detroiters who, in a moment of crisis, just “did what came naturally to them,” as one reviewer of the book put it.

And some specific points:

  1. What was the point, really, of the Mel Dismukes character, played by John Boyega? If the film sets out to exonerate him, I don’t think it succeeds. His character makes very little sense: he’s treated as an innocent peacemaker who is also improbably a fly on the wall, witnessing all of the police torture and even trying to forestall it. But why would the police–especially police as paranoid as these are made out to be–allow a black security guard to just hang out while they beat and murder people, unless he’s complicit with them?
  2. A perhaps historically pedantic point of information: one of the film’s obligarory sympathetic policemen is a homicide detective who, early in the film, says that he is going to recommend murder charges for the character played by Will Poulter, who seems to be based on the real-life Detroit cop David Senak. Senak was a vice squad officer implicated in the Algiers killings who also shot a looter in the back in the early days of the uprising. Narratively, this episode establishes the Senak character’s unhinged violent streak, but it also suggests that the forthcoming charges motivate his wild behavior later–he’s got nothing to lose anymore. Yet it wasn’t actually illegal at the time for cops to fire on fleeing suspects who refused an order to stop, even those suspected only of looting.  Murder charges would never have been forthcoming–and Senak’s motivations must have been deeper, or more complicated, than the film allows.
  3. Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 12.54.36 PM.png
    1967: Death in the Algiers Motel and Beyond, 2017, Rita Dickerson, acrylic on canvas.

    I was suspicious of some of the Twitter critiques I read of the film’s lack of black female characters, for the reason Bigelow herself offered: there were no black women present in the Motel itself. But after seeing the film, I would say that the character of Pollard’s mother should have been more prominent–and not just to check off a box. Rather, her advocacy for her son was such a prominent part of the real-life Algiers Motel case (which Hersey, again, emphasizes) and featuring her would have given the movie some of the political and emotional heft it just doesn’t have.

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