'Detroit': Marketable Thriller Instead of Real-Life Tragedy

'Still-living history'

See previous post: “'Detroit' Movie: Kathryn Bigelow 1967 Riots Depiction 'Horribly Real' & 'Deeply Self-Serving'.”

But I'm a Black American from the 1960s, who knows this history as a history of the lives of my people in this nation. From uprisings in Philly and Harlem, to those in Watts and Ferguson (where I lived for years), these stories have been lived and told from generation to generation with the specific intention of keeping me and black boys like me alive.

The idea that the police could and did kill black folks anywhere, at anytime, for any reason – or no reason at all – has been a baseline of understanding in black communities for 400 years, give or take a week or two during Reconstruction and Bill Clinton's first election.

For Black Americans, the events of Detroit '67 are not the events of a “dramatic thriller.” They are the events of a tragedy and still-living history we know very well.

Detroit movie trailer featuring Will Poulter (The Maze Runner, War Machine) and John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Star Wars: The Last Jedi).

Thrilling 'Detroit'

Yet the events in Kathryn Bigelow's film are not at all true. Detroit is a narrative, fictional movie, not a documentary. Indeed, Detroit the Movie, is a dramatic thriller meant first to entertain – which it does and which is why I don't like it and would never send anyone to see it, no matter how well intentioned and well made.

This is one level of the self-serving nature of this particular film – and of these films and filmmakers in general. In other words, it's about entertainment first, if not only. Something that is meant to let the filmmakers off the hook; to give them creative license to tell these stories to their most engaging effect. Except that it does not work that way.

Because Detroit is ultimately “entertainment,” it must do several things that are required of narrative American studio cinema. That is why the word “thriller” is such a prominent part of the marketing. That is why the trailer looks and sounds like the Zero Dark Thirty trailer, rather than the trailer for, say, Jackie or even Selma (which I also have issues with).

Tragedy as entertainment

You'll note the word “tragedy” is not used in the marketing of Detroit. Tragedy is the accurate description of these events and most of the events of the many slave and slave-like narratives we are repeatedly offered as entertainment. These are all horrible, reverberating tragedies that devastated lives and truncated the advancement of a people. The one thing they are not is thrilling. If you find them thrilling, you've got a problem.

But Hollywood can't sell tragedies that Shakespeare didn't write, so filmmakers take these tragedies and recast them as fodder for a thriller – titillating and evocative of our most basic emotional responses to the images and scenarios we are presented, which are both demeaning and diminishing.

And which I note again may all be true-ish in regard to the events of the day. Ultimately, it doesn't matter because for Detroit, these miseries were destined to be played as nail-biting. Which by my measure is condescending at best, sadistic at worst, and definitely self-serving in every case.

'Cinematic beatdown of Black America' as 'entertaining service to the greater community'

Detroit, with all its good intentions and little contrivances of history, with its desire to commiserate with a downtrodden community even as it treads upon that community in every frame, is a movie that I didn't need, don't want, and will not recommend even as I know Hollywood will honor it in the weeks and months ahead with all of its Good Citizenship awards, as it checks off a box on its list of good deeds. #HollywoodNotSoRacistAfterAll.

The history of the events of the 1967 Detroit Rebellion are just that: history. They are not fodder for a self-serving thriller that subjects audiences – no matter their ethnicityonce again to a cinematic beatdown of Black America at the hands of stereotyped white Americans who, we are reminded in the film, are nothing like the good white folks who made this movie as an entertaining service to the greater community.

Yet these brutal images are only ever brought to black Americans – to everyone – by well-intentioned white American filmmakers who identify, so to speak, with our pain. There's irony in that.

Detroit 1967 riotsDetroit 1967 riots.

Reductionist depiction of history

One more time: Detroit is a very well-made movie. If you should see it, you will likely come away from it emotionally tweaked – in one direction or another. If you are black (as I am), you'll likely feel sickened and once again reduced to little more than the collective tragedies of our history. If you are an average white person you will likely come away sickened and perhaps embarrassed, as you are reduced to little more than the heinous behavior of your ancestors.

One thing is for sure, you will not “know” anything true about the 1967 Detroit rebellion.

The real history of 1967 Detroit

But if you do want to know about the history of these events, you can. There's a great book called Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies (Wayne State University Press), edited by Joel Stone. It's a cogent and well-written analysis of the titular issues of the day.

Besides, there is a recently produced hometown documentary account of the events, 12th and Clairmount, produced by the Detroit Free Press in collaboration with Bridge Magazine and WXYZ-TV (Channel 7), and a group of Metro Detroit cultural institutions led by the Detroit Institute of Arts. 12th and Clairmount contains more than 400 reels of donated home movies from the era, along with narratives from people who were there – who lived there and lived the events themselves.

The documentary is not “thrilling,” but it captures this history without degrading the victims through the adept use of the tools of narrative cinema to render us small. Unlike Detroit, it does not use good intentions and excellent filmmaking to once again, stylishly, beat down black people in a movie meant to make white people feel better about themselves.

Detroit (2017)

Dir.: Kathryn Bigelow.

Scr.: Mark Boal.

Cast: John Boyega. Will Poulter. Algee Smith. Jacob Latimore. Jason Mitchell. Hannah Murray. Jack Reynor. Kaitlyn Dever. Ben O'Toole. John Krasinski.
Anthony Mackie. Nathan Davis Jr. Peyton 'Alex' Smith. Malcolm David Kelley. Bennett Deady. Mason Alban. Joseph David-Jones. Laz Alonso. Ephraim Sykes.
Chris Chalk. Jeremy Strong. Miguel Pimentel. Justin Mane. Samira Wiley. Khris Davis. Dennis Staroselsky. Eddie Troy. Karen Pittman.


Detroit movie cast info via the IMDb.

Images of street riot and Will Poulter as Officer Krauss in Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit movie: Annapurna Pictures.

Detroit 1967 riot: Ceská televize.

Detroit movie trailer: Annapurna Pictures.

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  1. Dan says:

    So, history cannot be made into thrillers? Oh, please. So much for most of the movies EVER MADE! Sounds more like you have an issue with history not being described as you like. You can blame white people all you want for the Detroit riots, but it was not white people leveling the town. And when I see the movie based on historical events, I will not feel ashamed at all for being white. And yes, I have read about the Detroit riots.

  2. farah says:

    Great review. I will be checking out that book, and that documentary you recommended.