“How many more times do we need to glorify black pain? And to what end?”
Title: Detroit (2017)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow 👩🏼🇺🇸
Writer: Mark Boal 👨🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
When I heard Kathryn Bigelow would be directing a film that tackles the crucial conversation of police brutality, I was pumped. After all, she’s the only female to have ever won 'Best Director' at the Academy Awards. And as flawed a barometer as that is for predicting a good result, it still seemed a foregone conclusion that Bigelow and her longtime collaborator Mark Boal would shed light on the 1967 Detroit riot with the bone-deep humanism I normally attribute their works, as in Hurt Locker (2008) or Zero Dark Thirty (2012).
Unfortunately, Detroit outdoes itself in the worst way possible. While Bigelow’s magnifying glass lends itself well to arid, desert settings and stoic scripting, that level of intense scrutiny turns grotesque and exploitative when gorging itself on the violence of black brutality. Had the visceral, uncomfortable viewing experience been necessary to the storyline or the film’s broader goal of helping the black community, presumably, then sure—the film’s 45-minute torture sequence could be taken as part and parcel of a greater good. But when the premise itself is flawed, as it is in Detroit, what we get is something nearly unwatchable.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES, barely
Women—and particularly black women—are noticeably absent from this film. While the scope of the story does feel narrow, centering on the true events of a hostage situation that took place at Algiers Motel, the fact remains that the filmmakers had ample opportunity to to include women in a more pivotal way. The two supporting characters of Karen and Julie, played by Kaitlyn Dever and Hannah Murray, are hostages who could have commanded the same level of back story afforded some of the male hostages. Instead, they are played up as sex objects, terrorized by police officers who tear their clothes off and threaten sexual violence, even as—thankfully—none occurs, beyond emotional trauma.
Flyby scenes of black women dot the film, of girlfriends and mothers who sit by phones, always indoors. This lack of substantiality for such a significant population is glaring. As Tora Shae of Black Girl Nerds says:
“We must continue to ask the question: ”Is this the whole story?” History, especially black history, cannot be retold without the voices of black women as accompaniment…[we are] not demanding too much when we ask to see ourselves reflected within narratives we know we were a part of.”
It’s difficult to grade a film in this category when it casts so many actors of color yet demeans them with such impunity. Look, I don’t want to understate how important the hiring of black actors is—work opportunities and paychecks will always benefit an underserved community more than empty platitudes. Yet the fact remains that all good intentions aside, Detroit reinforces a centuries-long narrative about black men and women that will be internalized by all its viewers.
Black Studies scholar-activist Mary Phillips explains that its omission of social context for what we see onscreen as angry mobs of black men is dehumanizing, adding that:
“To Bigelow and Boal, black community and political life matter little...Black death is what is featured. Scenes become almost pornographic in their length, offering viewers is a public lynching of black men.
Its excessiveness of violence and fascination with black male bodies eerily resembles D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation as racial stereotypes take center stage. Black people are rendered largely as paper dolls―angry rioters, bloodied victims, or sad relatives―with little community, politics, work, joy, or even back story.”
This emptiness is profoundly disturbing, culminating in an experience that Angelica Jade Bastien recounts in her heartfelt review:
“Watching Detroit, I didn’t see a period drama, but a horror film. The horror of white filmmakers taking on black history and the violence perpetuated upon black bodies with an unwavering eye yet nothing to say.”
Mediaversity Grade: F 1.92/5
How many more times do we need to glorify black pain? And to what end?