* = with caveats, especially with dialogue that self-references the year. “Helloooo? This is 1967! I can do whatever I want!”
Ok, so this movie. I had reservations going in. But there are times where I get sick and tired of being on edge, of having such a high amount of skepticism, of believing I’m in the minority of seeing things as they are and wondering if I’m wrong because of that. There are times I just want to be entirely wide open, entirely accepting, entirely trusting, putting my emotions on the line. Of watching a film and accepting what is given at face value. To not be so critical, because so many others aren’t. A part of me hates having my guard up against emotional manipulation so often for so many movies (especially of films made from around 2012 and onwards).
But I’ve been emotionally manipulated too many times in the past. I’ve seen that the things I’ve believed in and been taught to believe in are lies too many times. I fought on the wrong side for too long to risk going back so easily. It’s become a part of my nature now to watch any racially charged film like this (or any documentary for that matter) with a skeptical mind. I hate myself for doing this because it means I am usually unable to fully appreciate a good film containing subject matter like this upon first watch. But I would hate myself more if I did go into this blindly and putting my faith in the idea that it’s honest, that it’s made with honest intentions, has good lessons and/or entertainment within it, only to find out later on that it wasn’t.
Things weren’t always like this. Most films made from the late 60s to the early 2000s tended to be honest about these sorts of things, about their intentions, about their entertainment. Any mistakes made tended to be made in blissful ignorance rather than with intent. Like Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus film and how it portrays gladiators as nice family friendly guys when they weren’t slaughtering each other or Roman soldiers. Or those sword and sorcery films of the 70s and 80s which, well let’s face it all of them were pretty ridiculous in several ways. But there was a charm about it all, an innocence to it. Like how a child repeats what he hears and doesn’t consider the context of his words. But in this day and age, the child is grown up, and is fully aware of the context. We should likewise be aware, and act with wisdom.
“that I have this opportunity to expose this story in the hope that maybe it either generates a conversation, begins to generate a conversation and/or encourages more stories like this to come forward. To do nothing was not an answer.” — Kathryn Bigelow
“What better way to use your white privilege than to undermine it, raise questions about it, leverage it on behalf of black and brown people who usually don’t have a voice in the matter at all.” — Michael Eric Dyson, native Detroit activist and scholar
“(The film) created an opportunity to humanize the unthinkable and out of that, hopefully, creates empathy. And out of the empathy, perhaps, meaningful conversation can begin toward healing.” — Kathryn Bigelow
The film starts off in an irritating fashion. What was up with that opening segment, with the preschool art drawings? Did Kathryn Bigelow decide to let her toddlers doodle on the movie or something (I ask not bothering to check if she does have kids)? It sets the background for the film, stating that negroes moved out of the racist south to other cities in hopes of jobs, but that there wasn’t equal opportunity, equality was a lie, and that change was inevitable going to happen (violently). The question isn’t “if”, it’s “when” and “how”.
After that, the film begins well enough, showing how the riots got started in a well-done segment. Then the film’s pace slows down considerably for a decent amount of time until the incident at the hotel happens. Then at that point, the film becomes gripping and emotionally devastating. The entire thing became extremely uncomfortable, but that’s the intention. It took a long while, but I eventually got settled into the flow of the middle act when the police are (violently) interrogating everyone in the hotel about where the weapon is. After that whole act which is the crux of the film, it slows down again, but picks back up when the police start bringing in suspects, talking with or interrogating other police officers, and the court scenes. Then slows down again and ends on a, well, sort of downer.
Barring the shitty animated prologue, I thought the first act was the best part of the film. It made me wish this film was made in the same style as United 93, and by that I mean it focuses both on the small setting with the main characters on ground zero where an incident of violence is taking place, and on the bigger scale of the riots. Bouncing between both small and large scale would keep the momentum going and keep the film entirely investing, focusing on rioters burning and looting things, killing people, police trying to maintain control (and pointing out that there are both racist and non-racist officers), the national guard intervening, politicians, police speeches, civilians, etc. Instead the film opts to use the latter just for the first act, and focus primarily on the former for the rest of the film. Something like this deserves a film with bigger scope so it can cover more aspects of this entire event.
There’s another reason why I wish the film did this that has nothing to do with pacing. It’s about the message of the film as-is. Make no mistake, despite what Kathryn Bigelow may say about hoping this film creates discussion and to find an answer to the race-relations problem that many insist still exists today on a systematic level, the film is very one-sided about how to start such a conversation. Now in all fairness, the film is careful enough to demonstrate that, while there were racist officers back then and that the justice system sucked (and it still sucks, but not necessarily due to systematic racism), there were also officers who were decent people. They only show up in brief instances, but they’re there. But despite that, by the end of the film, it becomes clear that the main character focus of the film is the lead black singer of a four-man group, who has a hell of a voice. And the film ends with him throwing away his chance at fame and fortune with the band and instead opts to sing with a church choir instead. The reason is because he has no desire whatsoever to perform for white people, especially white cops who may be part of the crowd. And the film ends with him singing in the choir. There’s also the epilogue text to show what happened to who later on, but that’s how the film ends. This seems to indicate the film encourages segregation, encourages the racial divide, primarily because of police brutality, because of white privilege. As if the “conversation” to be had after viewing this film needs to be guided to a specific answer, rather than ask what the right answer is.
The film intentionally keeps the scope small for the 2nd act and onwards for this reason. Because if the scope were to be larger, the supposed answers would be more difficult to find, and would thus encourage more freeform thinking about this film. White people ≈ bad. White cops ≈ bad. White privilege ≈ bad. It doesn’t ever focus on how rioters indiscriminately destroyed businesses, regardless of them being white or black owned. It doesn’t ever really focus on the fact that soldiers/police were taking sniper fire, and some getting hit/killed as a result. It’s always a background thing. We never see the soldiers/police actually kill anyone who was a legitimate threat to them, and thus give us clear insight as to why they’re so on-edge. It’s only implied at best, heard off-camera.
It’s this limited thematic scope that I find bothersome. It’s especially troubling that films like this continue to get pushed forth in this day and age, when a message of coexistence is not only more relevant than ever, but more needed than ever. And yet the film ends on a note that encourages anything but coexistence. Which brings me to my next point.
Racist Themes Over the Years
Consider the films that addressed racism over the years. I’m pretty sure this goes back pretty far, but I only intend to cover so much in a review like this. Consider the original George A. Romero (may he rest in peace and not come back from the dead) zombie film Night of the Living Dead, made in 1968, 1 year after the events that took place in this film Detroit. A black man is the main star, and he’s in a house with other white people (one of which arguably portrays racism, or at the very least stubbornness and closed-mindedness), and the film is about how our worst enemy isn’t those outside of the community, but within the community. We are our own worst enemy, we threaten to tear each other apart even amidst the dangers that lurk outside and threaten to burst in because we cannot coexist. Even that movie, with it’s downer ending, had a coexistence message to it, by showing what would happen if we can’t coexist.
Then there’s In the Heat of the Night, made in 1967 (same year as the events in this film) which showcased that it is possible for blacks and whites to get along, even for a racist policeman to overcome his racist tendencies and learn to get along with a black person.
Blazing Saddles, 1974, a film that dared to make light of racism by making constant jokes about it throughout, and ultimately pushes forth a coexistence message in the most immature way possible. Immature, but great and hilarious.
White Dog, 1982, a film about a dog that attacks only black people, and the attempt to cure it of its racism that it wasn’t born with.
Mississippi Burning, 1988, another “Based on a true story” film where detectives visit racist Mississippi to solve the murders of a black guy and two white men, all 3 civil rights activists. White men, bringing down KKK members and racist police officers in a state that is largely racist during that time period.
Do the Right Thing, 1989, using the riots of the 60s as a metaphor for the turbulent race-relations of the present in Brooklyn, showcasing that all sides have faults to some extent, they should be addressed, but it’s difficult to know what exactly the right thing to do is. The film ends with no definitive answers, no clear bias for either side, conflicting quotes, and basically forcing audiences to ponder what to do in an open-ended way (something this film Detroit should’ve done at the very least as opposed to showing clear bias for one side).
American History X, 1998, showcasing a white supremacist neo-nazi as he learns to overcome his racist tendencies, and tries to pass them along to his younger brother.
Remember the Titans, 2000, a football team composed of blacks and whites must learn to coexist despite the segregation in their town (currently going through de-segregation), and ultimately succeed. Not very historically accurate, but the message is good.
Monster’s Ball, 2001, a racist officer slowly comes to realize that his racist views are wrong after his son’s suicide, and learns that all he was taught from his father is wrong. He must change, and sees an opportunity to change through a black woman, who’s husband he helped execute in prison.
Django Unchained, 2012, black man who was a slave seeks vengeance upon those who took his wife from him, and gets it, by slaughtering pretty much everyone.
12 Years a Slave, 2013, black men becomes unjustly enslaved by whites for 12 years before finally becoming free with a little outside help from an Amish.
Lee Daniel’s The Butler, 2013, the story of a black butler who served in the white house over the years, with occasional focus on family/friends in other areas. Themes of oppression and being put down, hoping for change, and celebrating when Obama got voted into office.
The Free State of Jones, 2016, about how some white and black men banded together to overthrow Confederate rule in their town, but how ultimately their victory rang hollow, and how the racism that existed back then was maintained into the 60s, and ending on a dour note of racism remaining in the present.
And this movie, Detroit, 2017.
I might be wrong, there could be several exceptions I’m missing here, but it seems as if the equality/coexistence message has somehow slowly faded away since around 2012 and onwards, being replaced with a message that is pro-white guilt, pro-BlackLiveMatter. And this trend seems to coincide with the racial divide that has been growing for the past several years.
Context is Everything
So even though this film is well made (barring the uneven pacing and the less-attention-than-desired aspect of the characters in the film whom we don’t really ever get to know, thus focusing on the events more than the characters themselves), for a film made in this day and age that tackled the subject of racism, that’s not enough. Especially when the film is a period-piece that deals with something that happened pre-80s, or that deals with the LA riot of 1992. We are currently living in a time where division is being deviously promoted under the guise of some twisted form of a coexistence message. By coexistence, they mean that white people should apologize, give away money, and switch roles and be on the receiving end of systematic racism (which arguably no longer exists). And there are ways this film could’ve easily accomplished this.
For instance, consider Detroit then, and consider Detroit now. It’s now a predominantly black town with a majority of black police officers. And yet since the riot, the town has done anything but improve. The city went on a downhill trend and still hasn’t recovered ever since the riot. Unemployment rate is higher than it ever was (especially compared to pre-riot Detroit). The city is a mess with a high crime rate and a population that is a third of what it originally was. The film could’ve highlighted this aspect, indicate that this was a long-term result of the riots, advocating a message that is anti-violent, while at the same time advocating an anti-racist message at the same time (racial oppression is bad, but so are riots). Advocate a message that demands understanding and learning the context of all sides. Build bridges for communications so that things can be resolved peacefully rather than violently.
This film had the potential to do that even with its limited scope, but it doesn’t. And that’s ultimately why I can’t recommend it. Maybe in another time period, in another decade, when things have quelled down, this film will be viewed with better appreciation. Maybe not. Maybe another film will be made about the same place (or in any of those other places where riots were happening during that time period) which accomplishes what I wished this film had accomplished. Until then…
… until then I’m sick of these types of films coming out every year and promoting this white-guilt propoganda. And I’m sick of reviewing them when they have nothing to really offer.
PS: Why the fuck didn’t anyone mention the starter pistol? Seriously. Why did everyone keep their mouths shut and not tell the cops about the starter pistol and who fired it?
For more reading, if you’re interested:
History vs. Hollywood: Detroit