Detroit is a movie you won’t forget. Or at least I won’t. It is brilliantly infuriating, difficult to watch and necessary to experience. If we as a country – or really as a people – are to begin to figure out how to move forward with the remnants of 2017 life, it’s a starting point. Not the only one but a possible one.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are both white and yet have chosen to tell a historical story that can be read as part of the ongoing story of the White patriarchal repression of Blacks. This has already created a side controversy that one realizes, after seeing the film, provides endless intellectual fodder but is sort of beside the point.
More to the issue is that if the arts can play some small part in bridging the gap between where we were, where we are and where we hope to be, Detroit should become a potent and powerful conversation starter. It’s that unrelenting and uncompromising.
Watching the film at a Writers Guild screening of people of all sorts of colors, ages, shapes, and sizes, it was clear the entire audience was emotionally gutted and awake. This was a Hollywood film made by whites where no white savior came in to save the day or even the score for the poor, put upon downtrodden. We will never know what any other filmmaker of any other color would do with the same material – for better or worse – but at the moment Detroit is what we have of one hideous incident in one particularly hideous moment in our past.
This, by the way, is not meant to be congratulatory in any sort of way. There are no congratulations to be had in any discussion of this debacle.
Fifty years ago a racist patrolman in Detroit led a small group of law enforcers to alternately beat, torture and murder a small group of innocent Black men hanging out at the local Algiers Motel.
It was an explosive, ugly time of race riots and social injustice in big cities all across the country, but most especially in in the Motor City where an almost all White police force (93%) were tasked with holding the line on the residents of a fast-growing Black city (30%).
The unfolding story of the movie Detroit uses the ever-growing popular method of plopping its audience directly into the dramatic center of its narrative and trusting that in the age of web surfing, iPhone clicking and incessantly intense game-playing it will be able to play catch up.
Recent films like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk do this and go for the big overall visceral reaction at the expense of individual character development and emotional nuance. Others like Atomic Blonde provide a couple of Irving the Explainer scenes of incoherent exposition and then have us settle down so we can watch the real entertainment – some larger than life extended violence where an unlikely hero/heroine (and who better than Charlize Theron) beats the crap out of everyone in slight we’d like to pulverize if were we six feet tall and had the benefit of hair, makeup and extensive martial arts training by stunt coordinator experts.
Detroit, however, is not about sensationalized hollow victories or a dramatic retelling of heroism under the thematic banner that War is Hell. It only starts out as a generalized expression of the Big Idea and a pastiche of characters one never gets to really know yet follows along into over-the-top battles. Its power is that it does all of this and then, at some unsuspecting point once this is all established, gets real specific, real fast. And stays there and unfolds for the essential body of the work – a kind of American horror movie gone wrong in a period motel hallway. And then goes on from there to show something about how we lived then. And ask the question if, at the end of the day, it’s really all that different than the way we live now – or is now just a cleaned up version?
Suffice it to say that at the end your visceral nerve endings are not only more than met but you also didn’t need chunks of exposition or violently musical YouTube-like video sequences to do it for you. There are actually real people to watch doing unfortunately all too human things that prompt all too human reactions that go on and on and on. As we say in screenwriting class, in science and in psychotherapy – cause and effect, real cause and effect. For every action is there is a reaction – one that is logical and one, in the movie Detroit, anyway, that you can follow.
When asked the often-dreaded question of how he approached the material in a talkback afterwards, screenwriter Mark Boal said that he essentially saw this as a movie about an artist whose life was derailed. That, and a good deal of research, and talent, is probably a large part of the reason that the script for Detroit works so well. Call me old-fashioned but if you don’t know or care about the people (in this real-life case an aspiring young Motown-type singer) what do you really have? As a writer you need to find a way in. You can’t effectively write an issue or a historical event.
Sure, you can film it and use all sorts of technique, CGI and camera tricks to forge effective mass entertainment. But at the end of the day, what do you really have? What are you telling us that we didn’t already know, or need to be reminded of?
Certainly, movies can succeed solely on mass entertainment value, escapism, cheap thrills and recycled messages. Many of these films are highly watchable and superbly executed. But we’ve reached a point in the business where we have gotten used to the former and forgotten films like Detroit. Go see it and consider this a reminder.
That might be a good way to end but it would be an oversight not to single out the mammoth filmmaking skills of Kathryn Bigelow here. A two-year DGA study at the end of 2015 noted women account for 6.4% of film directors and just 3% of major box office films. But let’s be kind and say the numbers have gone up slightly in the last year and a half. Still, that’s pretty piss poor.
When you watch Detroit you don’t so much ask yourself, how did she do that shot but in what world was she able to integrate all those disparate scenes and themes so convincingly, recreate an often botched decade of American history (the sixties) on film so convincingly and get those performances out of those actors so effortlessly? Heck if I know.
It makes you wonder how many hundreds of other potential Kathryn Bigelows there are out there. Filmmakers who are female, or perhaps non-white, non-heterosexual or non gender binary, who might never get the chance. And how many of those stories are yet to be told. Not only through the entertainment industry but in any other American industry.
That would be one way to truly Make America Great again.