Monday, June 11, 2018

17 Thoughts In Response to Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit

1967 Detroit riots. Photo Credit: Public Domain/
It's an axiom of great photographers to focus the lens on a micro view that serves as a mirror of the big picture. For example, a closeup of a mother weeping over her shrapnel-damaged infant son as a means of showing the side effects of carpet bombing and the meaning of that impersonal euphemism, "collateral damage."

This, it would seem, is what Katheryn Bigelow was attempting to do in her 2017 focus on what occurred at the Algiers Motel in the movie Detroit, a purportedly fact-based film set against the backdrop of the Detroit riots of 1967.

My initial title for this review was going to be Detroit Starts Fine But Veers Into Horror for Horror's Sake.

My blog response was initially going to read... Recommended: Read the Reviews and Skip the Film. Or maybe, Recommended: Don't watch this if you're depressed.

I would have skipped it altogether (a public response) but then found myself dwelling on certain aspects of the story and decided to make a list of thoughts about the film, partly in an effort to purge myself of some things that were stirred by watching it.

1. "the city routinely declined to promote black patrolmen, and the police had a reputation for exhibiting 'crude racism' and ignoring the needs of the black community. The police were perceived as unwilling to enforce the law and slow to respond in black communities, and police harassment of African Americans was the norm. Subsequently, African Americans... tended to strongly distrust the police. There had also been several incidents of brutality committed by the police... which worsened the tension between the police and the city's African American citizens."

The above paragraph is taken from a Wikipedia entry not about Detroit, but about riots in a section of Cleveland in the mid-Sixties. It could have been Chicago, L.A., Newark, Louisville, Kanas City, Baltimore or a multitude of other places, including Detroit.

2. The incident at the Algiers Motel in Detroit served not as a microcosm of the problems in Detroit, but of a pervasive issue throughout the nation.

Newark riots. Photo Credit: Tabitha C. Wang, Public Domain
3. My family living in New Jersey at this time. After the Newark riots, a neighbor of mine stated that there were cops in Newark who welcomed the riots. It gave them an opportunity "to shoot a n***** and get away with it." His uncle, a cop, had said this. Being an impressionable teen it depressed me to hear this.

4. Will Poulter played one of the most evil characters I've ever seen in film, but this character was not really a character. Compare Poulter to Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men. Bardem was scary bad, but interesting. Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood was another evil man, but we saw a fully developed character, a human being with motivations, albeit bent.

5. Speaking of motivations, none of the characters appeared to be really developed. The five Motown singers were given a few minutes to let us know they were young folks with dreams. Characters have motivations. Characters must each have a quest, something they want. We only got that from one person in the film, a singer who had talent and a dream.

6. To quote from one of the reviewers, the film became "an over-indulgent orgy of violence" that failed to address the historical context in which the riots arose.

7. There are a lot of films that deal with tension, violence and the like, but the best films give the viewer some relief, places to catch one's breath. Maybe that is the point that Ms. Bigelow was making. "If you think an hour or two of unrelenting torture is bad, well imagine how these kids felt after eight hours of this, and worse." O.K., but I didn't sign up for that. And whatever happened to the maxim, "Less is more"?

There are dozens of films that effectively deal with injustice without putting this whole horror directly in your face. Even Tarantino's violence is interspersed with comic relief.

8. The deeper, long-term causes of the riots barely appear in the film. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, "The deeper causes of the riot were high levels of frustration, resentment, and anger that had been created among African Americans by unemployment and underemployment, persistent and extreme poverty, racism and racial segregation, police brutality, and lack of economic and educational opportunities."

9. The crazy guy who fired the fake gun and initiated this whole crazy sequence events was killed right at the start. Why didn't anyone explain what happened? I dunno.

10. O.K., maybe I do sort of understand this. One time, in my hippie youth, I was beaten up by a couple tough guys from outside the neighborhood. The police talked to the assailants first and afterwards hassled me in such a way that I, like the victimized young people in the film, kept my mouth shut. I could tell the police had no interest in my side of the story. I suppose it is possible the young people were too terrified to speak and believed any attempt to say anything would be considered insolence. Power can be intimidating.

11. Getting back to Will Poulter... How do actors feel after playing a role like that? I mean. at the end of each day, where is your head at?

12. In some communities, like Duluth, there have been improvements. Here is an example involving an artist, Carla Hamilton, who was profiled, singled out and interrogated improperly. Her response was to go to Chief Tuskan and turn this into a learning moment for the police by having them hear how they mishandled the situation. The follow up was an art exhibition at the Duluth Art Institute the following winter.

This would not have happened 50 years ago. The dialogue with Chief Tuscan led to a broader dialogue, ultimately with the community.

13. Improvement does not mean that race issues have disappeared. There is much work yet to be done.

14. The animated re-telling of the story of how blacks migrated North for jobs in the rust belt and the "white flight" that occurred in the inner cities after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that permitted blacks to leave the ghettos, this was well done and got my hopes up for the film. Handled with a light touch, yet informative. The scenes that followed raised more questions than they answered.

15. There are many ways to tell a story. I can imagine that many people watching on DVDs quit watching before it reaches any kind of conclusion. I think here of 12 Angry Men, which deals with an injustice without hanging it in front of your face.

16. One reviewer at  wrote, "Too bad the writing didn't create a more coherent picture of the time period. Statistics of unemployment, arrests of African Americans, a rising black prison population, would have helped create the setting in which the riots occurred." Well, that is the kind of material you can bring to the fore in a documentary.

17. The next comment from the reviews falls into the same category, info that could be better shared in a documentary. "The film fails to show how the riots were a watershed moment in the history of Detroit, how everything afterward became worse economically for the city and where that left the city today. Near the end of the film, Detroit goes from civil rights drama to procedural drama and completely loses its way. Certainly, presenting what happened to the three white officers charged with murder was worthwhile, but that could have been done in a paragraph as an epilogue."

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The history of race in America is depressing to think about, but it cannot be ignored.

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