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Friday, July 28, 2017
KATHRYN BIGELOW'S FILM DETROIT - STAGGERING VIOLENCE OF AN AMERICAN CITY IN MELTDOWN
Mind-numbing violence and racial politics
By Joanne Laurier
28 July 2017
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow; written by Mark Boal
Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, Detroit, a fictionalized account of an incident
that occurred during the July 1967 rebellion in the titular city, the police
murder of three young black men at the Algiers Motel, premiered on July 25 at
the Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit.
More than 2,000 people attended the gala event. Significant
figures from the local political establishment, including the city council
president and the chief of police, were on hand, along with numerous film and
music industry celebrities.
Michael E. Dyson, academic, Baptist minister and New York Times op-ed
writer, addressed rambling remarks dominated by his usual racialist demagogy to
the city’s selfie-taking movers and shakers. The latter were there primarily to
celebrate their own success and wealth, amassed during Detroit’s “rebirth” and
“renewal,” a process that has only benefited big business and a stratum of the
upper middle class.
Dyson, a Detroit native, gave Bigelow a fulsome introduction,
after which the filmmaker brought several survivors of the Algiers Motel
killings on stage.
As for the film itself, Detroit opens
with an animated sequence of painter Jacob Lawrence’s acclaimed series on the
“Great Migration” of African Americans from the rural South to Northern and
Midwestern industrial centers. Setting the tone for what is to come, the
prologue, written by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., presents the
migration and subsequent history in racial terms. It makes no mention of the
fact that the Detroit area was the center of titanic struggles of the working
class, black and white, whose objective unity was forged in the giant auto
Fifty years ago, on July 23, the Detroit riot erupted. It was one
of the largest and bloodiest of the series of urban rebellions that occurred in
the US in the 1960s. The official record indicates that disturbances took place
in 150 cities in 1967 alone. These revolts by some of the most oppressed
sections of the working class and poor were fiercely suppressed by city and
state police and, in some cases, the National Guard, who occupied urban centers
such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland, Newark and Minneapolis. In Detroit,
the US army was also mobilized by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The uprisings were part of a radical, global upsurge that lasted
until the mid-1970s. As the WSWS explained in articles originally published in
the Bulletin newspaper
in 1987 and recently reposted on
this web site: “The riots occurred in black ghetto sections of the Northern
cities, but they were not ‘race riots.’ … They were explosions directed against
the most brutal levels of capitalist exploitation and poverty, as well as the
pervasive racial discrimination which reinforced these conditions among black
and other minority sections of the working class.”
The state responded with great violence to this challenge to its
authority. Sidney Fine’s comprehensive Violence
in the Model City: The Cavanagh Administration, Race Relations, and the Detroit
Riot of 1967 cites a Vietnam veteran who survived the Algiers
Motel events as saying that he had “lived through a night of horror and murder
in Detroit” worse than anything he experienced in Vietnam. Officially, 43
people died, nearly 1,200 were injured and more than 7,200 were arrested over
the course of five days of fighting.
Sparking the Detroit outburst was a police raid on an after-hours
social club, a “blind pig,” that sold liquor without a license. The rough
treatment the police meted out in arresting some 82 people at the bar who were,
ironically, celebrating the return of two soldiers from Vietnam provoked
hundreds of angry residents to take to the streets. Bigelow’s Detroit begins with this
incident and proceeds to concentrate on one of the most infamous police
actions, which occurred during the night of July 25-26—the massacre at the
Staying or hanging out at the motel on the night in question were
six young black men—Carl Cooper, Aubrey Pollard, Fred Temple, Michael Clark,
Lee Forsythe and James Sortor; five members of the singing group, The
Dramatics; Robert Lee Green, a black veteran from Kentucky; and two young white
girls from Ohio, Julie Hysell and Karen Malloy. (The characters’ names in the
film have either been shortened—first names only—or altered.)
On the pretext that a sniper had fired from the motel, Detroit
police sprayed a volley of bullets at the motel and then charged inside.
Three white cops, David Senak, Ronald August and Robert Paille (in
Bigelow’s movie, a thinly disguised Senak, the chief instigator of the mayhem,
becomes Krauss, played by Will Poulter) slammed the residents against the wall,
beat them to a pulp and taunted them with racial slurs. The girls were struck and
made to strip. Both in the historical event and the film, the ensuing savage
torture-murder session leaves three men dead: Carl (Jason Mitchell), Aubrey
(Nathan Davis Jr.) and Fred (Jacob Latimore). The three cops, and a black
security guard, are eventually charged but acquitted.
The Algiers Motel event was a horrible crime and fully deserves to
be dealt with artistically. It should be lodged in popular consciousness as a
prime example of the essential cruelty and ferocity of social relations in
America, when the “democratic” trappings are stripped away, as well as the
ruthless determination of the ruling class to crush all resistance. It is
appropriate that there should be widespread interest in this tumultuous
However, reproducing the immediate, horrific reality of violence
is not the same thing as bringing out the deepest truth about that violence.
From that more serious point of view, Detroit is
an aesthetic and political failure.
To begin with, the movie’s title conveys the notion that the city
is identical with the Algiers Motel killings, that Detroit has been nothing
more than a center of organized brutality against the African American
population. A few characters express opposition to the racism of the police,
but their sentiments take up a minuscule portion of the film.
In a work that runs well over two hours, some 70 percent is given
over to scenes of psychopathic racist violence. This kind of intrusive,
porno-sadistic, claustrophobic filmmaking is emotionally manipulative and
prevents reflection. Through its images and sounds, Detroit tells its
audience that the savagery of the Algiers incident was the result of paranoid,
sexually charged white racism. No other explanation is offered and no wider
context is presented, encouraging the idea that race and race alone was
(In terms of the violence itself, incidentally, one of the
victims, Julie Delaney, nee Hysell, told the Los Angeles Times recently that what
happens in the movie “is like ‘The Smurfs’ compared to what really happened.”
Delaney told the newspaper, “People were begging for their lives. I just kept
thinking ‘they killed three people, and there’s one person they haven’t taken,
then I’m next.’ I remember the voices of the cops yelling, again and again and
Bigelow has never made a dramatically coherent or convincing work.
Her new film is awkwardly, disjointedly constructed. When the characters are
not screaming abuse and things quiet down, the banality of the dialogue and the
flat, undeveloped characterizations—devils or angels—make themselves felt.
Unhappily, Larry Reed (Algee Smith), a traumatized survivor and member of The
Dramatics, draws both racialist and mystical conclusions.
The brief courtroom scene represents something of an exception.
Presumably based on the actual trial record, it shows a slick defense attorney
for the cops (John Krasinski) viciously berating black witnesses and has a
certain ring of truth to it.
The decision by Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal to make Melvin
Dismukes (John Boyega), a black security guard who ends up being an accomplice
to the three killer cops, the chief protagonist, is extremely problematic. (In
1968, Dismukes was found not guilty of felonious assault.) Bigelow’s hero is a
contradictory, murky figure, who, if he were white, would probably be treated
as another homicidal maniac, rather than as a man of considerable wisdom, who
anchors the film.
As mentioned above, Bigelow’s Detroit was introduced July 25 at the Fox
Theatre by Michael E. Dyson, who was present to give the film and its director
his imprimatur. A good deal, politically and financially, is riding on the
movie and the producers and distributors (including Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) were
taking preemptive action to forestall any possible attacks from identity politics
critics, who might raise objections to a white filmmaker “appropriating” black
On the Red Carpet, Dyson offered Bigelow special dispensation for
her whiteness: “That a white woman directed this film is extraordinarily
important. Because had a black person directed it, they might say it was being
politically correct … But as a white woman [she was] leveraging her authority,
her privilege, in defense of vulnerable people who are incapable of expressing
themselves or not being taken seriously.”
Along the same lines, in the August issue of ELLE magazine, Dyson
wrote: “Is Bigelow going to tell what cynical racists, and systemic racism, did
to black folk? Yes… And what does she know about black folk? Enough to limn our
fragile, beautiful, worthy humanity with a discerning eye, and enough to know
that telling the truth about the devastating consequences of structural racism
and police brutality is one of the greatest gifts we can be given.”
Dyson’s intervention is a type of political-commercial advertising.
He is plugging the film on behalf of racial politics and the Hollywood studios.
Bigelow has told the media that she made Detroit because the wave
of police violence in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere left her no moral
choice. As to her solution to the killings, whose victims of course are both
black and white, she limply told the Detroit
News, “I think the movie speaks to the necessity for a dialogue …
The necessity for a conversation is now, and this has to change. And that’s not
about Detroit, that’s about this country.”
Boal too sees the Detroit riot and current issues in exclusively
racial terms. In “Why I wrote Detroit ,”
at Vulture.com, one of New
York Magazine’s web sites, he blamed the Algiers Motel
killings on one “sociopathic racist patrolman.” Boal did not apparently intend
to write a historical or social drama, but found himself “working in
horror-genre veins, except that in my case, the supernatural element was
replaced with the all-too-real terror of racism.” Moreover, explaining the film’s
high level of irrational, visceral terror, Boal explains, “We wanted viewers
not so much to watch the story as absorb it like a physical sensation.”
Bigelow’s trajectory, as we have noted before, is especially
telling. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute before winning
a scholarship in 1971 to the Whitney Museum in New York. There she immersed
herself in the “avant-garde art scene,” and, later, at Columbia University she
came under the influence of French postmodernist thinker Sylvère Lotringer, an
admirer of Michel Foucault, among others. One of her earliest film
Operations in Support of Unconventional War, made in 1975,
critiqued US counterinsurgency methods and the use of death squads.
After a number of mediocre commercial efforts, Bigelow burst into
wider prominence with TheHurt Locker in 2008,
accommodating herself to the US war on terror. From there, she graduated to the
“art-torture” film Zero
Dark Thirty (2012), a purported account of the endeavors by one
indefatigable female CIA agent to track down Osama Bin Laden.
In the course of making the film, Bigelow and scriptwriter Mark
Boal received assistance from the highest levels of the CIA and the American
state. Zero Dark Thirty was
not only filthy, it was sheer fantasy, as journalist Seymour Hersh has
revealed. In any event, this is a team clearly enthralled by men in uniform!
Along with a good portion of her ex-left generation, Bigelow today
combines support for the US “war on terror” with the most emotive, calculated
attempts to whip up racial animosity.
In the end, what cripples Bigelow’s Detroit are its false
Social conditions for the mass of Detroit residents today, a city
illegally forced into bankruptcy in 2013, are worse than they were in 1967. The
population suffers from high levels of poverty, unemployment and every form of
social misery, including utility and water shutoffs. On the basis of Bigelow’s
racialism, this is inexplicable. Some 63 percent of Detroit police officers are
now black, one of the highest percentages of any major city police department
in the US. Detroit has had a succession of black mayors, city councilmen and
women, and police chiefs since the mid-1970s.
A better, more insightful, more honestly dramatic film would have
to take as its premise a different starting point, that the great problem in
Detroit is the profit system.
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