'Detroit' Movie: Kathryn Bigelow 1967 Riots Depiction 'Horribly Real' & 'Deeply Self-Serving'

Detroit movie street riot: Zero Dark 30 director Kathryn Bigelow horribly real, deeply self-serving 2017 releaseDetroit movie street riot scene: The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow tackles the 1967 Detroit riots in “horribly real” and “deeply self-serving” 2017 release marketed as a “dramatic thriller.”

Kathryn Bigelow's 'Detroit' movie: Horribly real semidocumentary or self-serving Hollywood depiction of 1967 Detroit Rebellion?

In the city of Detroit, from July 23 through July 27 of 1967, the people rebelled against the conditions of their existence. Some call this the 1967 Detroit Riot; it's also known as the 12th Street Riot and the 1967 Detroit Rebellion. I prefer the latter.

During the rebellion, 43 people died – 33 of whom were black, 10 were white. Twenty-four of the black victims were shot by police officers and National Guardsmen, while six were shot by store owners or security guards.

Three of those killings are the subject of Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, her itinerant The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty scenario writer Mark Boal (who also wrote Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah), and their new dramatic thriller, Detroit.

(“Dramatic thriller” is the marketing term of art being used in the promotion of the movie. We'll get back to that notion in a moment.)

'Horribly real' & 'deeply self-serving'

Detroit is, for the most part, masterfully composed. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd returns to “put the audience in the action” – Ackroyd lensed The Hurt Locker for Bigelow, as well as Paul Greengrass' United 93, Green Zone, Captain Phillips, and Jason Bourne, among a number of other shaky-cam flicks.

Providing a sense of Haskell Wexler-esque vérité is Ackroyd's speciality, and that's the central goal of these filmmakers: to make all of this seem real. Horribly real. This they generally achieve.

The problem is that when it's not being horribly real, Detroit is deeply self-serving, occasionally condescending, and more than a little irritating. This is usually what happens when white filmmakers decide to tell the story of a minority their ancestors lorded over during one of the United States' many instances of exceptional cruelty to communities that are not white.

We will return to this notion of the filmmakers' condescension and self-serving presentation in a bit. (As to the movie being irritating, that might just be me.)

'Deeply committed' actors

Nonetheless, once again, Detroit is very well made. Its players are all deeply committed, particularly Will Poulter (The Revenant, We Are the Millers) as Krauss, the Detroit policeman at the center of several dastardly moments during the rebellion, including the killing of the three young black men mentioned above. The fact that Officer Krauss (and others) killed these boys were not disputed; the facts surrounding the killings, however, were.

Much of the mayhem takes place in the Algiers motel, where Krauss and his cohorts, including other Detroit police officers, state troopers, and National Guardsmen, engage in a brutal – and brutally depicted – series of interrogations wherein several young black men and two young white women are abused physically and psychology, and occasionally murdered outright.

Detroit movie Will Poulter as Officer Krauss: chief villain in Kathryn Bigelow depiction of 1967 riotsDetroit movie: Will Poulter as Officer Krauss, the chief villain in Kathryn Bigelow's depiction of the 1967 Detroit riots.

Problematic 'good filmmaking'

All of this capable filmmaking, these extraordinary performances, are part of the problem with Detroit – and films of its kind – which include most civil rights era sagas, from Driving Miss Daisy to The Help; and most slave narratives, from Mandingo and Roots to 12 Years a Slave, Roots again, and Free State of Jones. In addition to both the demonstrably evil The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith) and the well-intentioned The Birth of a Nation (Nate Parker), the latter produced for the most part by black filmmakers.

These films are all so well made, so “good” that their sheer impressive presentation often obscure their effect on the communities they portend to support – or not, in the case of Griffith. The effect being to recast these communities again and again as savagely brutalized victims; degraded and beatdown.

Which, of course, has been true in the history of America and has been well documented in the history of American cinema. Fully documented, some might say.

'Ongoing beatdown of Black America' in American cinema

These films must, by virtue of their earnestness – including Griffith's deeply earnest intention to spread lies and hurt black folks – contribute to the ongoing beatdown of Black America in American movies. They enfranchize the notion of degradation and defeat as the central narrative of African Americans – along with women and the various minorities in the nation.

We've been watching ourselves get our asses kicked, and get abused, raped, and murdered in the movies for more than 100 hundred years. Very often, we are presented these images, historical or otherwise, in films meant to appease us – and by extension to assuage the guilt of the descendants of the previously mentioned unkind majority who are often, as noted, being both condescending and self-serving in the process. The occasional Hidden Figures, notwithstanding.

Ostensibly, these films – Detroit and the like – are also meant to edify the nation about these histories and to ensure that these deprivations of humanity never happen again. They don't. At best they entertain, which is another issue we'll get to.

Failing to capture the 'truth' of historical events

However well made, these movies always fail to capture the “truth” of events like those painstakingly – expertly – captured in Detroit because, like all narrative fiction, they're made up. Certainly they are deeply researched; in fact, the exhaustive research into these events is noted in the end credits of Detroit. It's a moment that felt like the filmmakers saying to the audience, “See, we looked it up on more than just the Internet.” Which they plainly did; good for them.

Nevertheless, it's made up – filtered, interpreted, staged, and presented to us, the audience, as history – which it isn't. Even so, these filmmakers have decided they know what happened at the Algiers Motel that hot July night in 1967. They show us these cops shooting from the hip, planting evidence, abusing and maligning and ultimately killing.

These filmmakers believe the victims and deign to tell their story – but not the victim's way, rather the Hollywood way. And they may well have gotten it right, including many of the facts and the tone of the day. For that matter, I agree with them. These cops are guilty of everything they are accused of, so far as I'm concerned.

'Detroit' Movie: Kathryn Bigelow 1967 Riots Depiction 'Horribly Real' & 'Deeply Self-Serving' continues here.

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