The United States has a long, troubled history with race. One that presently and consistently casts doubt on the judiciary system and the authority of police meant to protect and serve. Although enraging and disturbing acts of racism, injustice, and prejudice still exist, awareness of past tragedies are aptly used as a reflection and testimonial to the plight of our current state of racial unrest.
Of the devices used for healing and understanding, is that of film. Filmmakers use their platform through cinema to capture the essence of a time; to not just entertain, but to inform. Kathryn Bigelow’s directorial portrayal of the Algiers motel murders during the 1967 Detroit riots attempts to do just that. Yet, some find fault with her directorial techniques and Mark Boal’s - the screenwriter - chosen story line.
The start of the film opens with a police raid on a bar occupied by black customers which later explodes into an all out riot by black neighborhood residents. At its outset, the film presents itself as a depiction of racially biased criminality of white officers against black residents. For some, it is easy to pigeonhole the film in this light: another film depicting racially motivated violence on people of color.
However, as it progresses, it becomes clear that the film takes on a greater responsibility. From its initial widening of the lens literally and figuratively, the audience is made to understand the gravity of the pilfering, chaotic riots.
But what is truly remarkable and worthy of attention is the sudden shift Bigelow makes by narrowing the perspective of the events that took place that night to a group of young people and eventually to that of Larry Cleveland, former member of a singing group called “The Dramatics”.
Unfortunately, this distinguishing characteristic of honing in on the perspective of these few characters to fully reveal the raw nature and first person aspect was lost to some.
Reading articles from renowned journalists and authors admitting thoughts such as “Just as the real raid and the torture were carried out by the police, the recreated scenes were carried out by Bigelow.” by Richard brody of The New Yorker was difficult to grasp.
Brody continued his distaste with the film by further diminishing Bigelow’s directing techniques to mere fetishism, calling Bigelow’s deliberate jilts, shakes, and bumps of the camera to emphasize strikes and blows as “meticulous dramatization of events intended to shock strikes me as the moral equivalent of pornography.”
While reading Brody’s article titled “The Immoral Artistry of Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Detroit’”, I couldn’t help but feel conflicted. Yes, I completely understood his point of view. The most terrifying yet moving climax of the film illustrates the mistreatment of a group of young black men and two young white women by state police. This scene is being portrayed in full bloom with no sharp edit cuts to shelter the audience from the violence heard in wails and cries of plea.
However, I disagree with Brody’s insistence that Bigelow be apologetic for her deliberate directing choices. Why? Most moving films in cinema history have these same qualities and I believe that movies like Spielberg’s Schindler's List that Bigelow was saying to the audience that we deserve to experience the full emotional aspect of such despicable moments in all its shameful appeal.
We deserve to have if but a glimpse into the truth of what many people experienced, and what so many oppressed people of any color - whether directly targeted or standing alongside those who were targets - experienced during a time of severe racial anxiety, aggression, and misunderstanding.
I fear that the thoughts of Brody and other writers who share their truth and experience of the movie, though rightfully so, can skew the effectiveness of a film like Detroit. Of course, the film is not entirely without fault as it largely dismisses many fundamentally significant events that took place as a result of the Algiers Motel shooting, in which black community members came together to seek nonviolent justice for the deaths of the young men.
Plus, since Bigelow largely focused on the Algiers motel tragedy, the title of the film seemed broad. Still, Bigelow and Boal are doing just what many studio actors and directors have not done enough of: bring to life the untold stories of American minorities. That’s what this film is. An untold story, though dramatized, from the perspective of young people who experienced a tragedy, one that was never grieved or consolable.
Being a woman of color, I applaud Bigelow’s choice to not dilute the effects of the most violent and shocking scenes because she is allowing the audience to make their choice on how to respond to the treatment that happened outside of the telling of this story. As a director, she is saying that she trusts the audience's judgment and response to her portrayal.
Bigelow is saying that we can handle this abuse on screen because we have come a long way to know that violence only begets violence and that the only way to fight injustice anywhere at anytime is to know the past, to understand the present, and to prepare for the future.
The opinions of those writers who equate Bigelow’s directorial choices to pornorgraphy and no more than the fetishization of black men and black bodies send the message to me that they might not have fully understood Bigelow’s sensory immersion and have reduced the current state of Americans to mere children who get riled up by the sight of rage.
The best way to pick apart a film as a writer, whether a person viewed it positively or negatively, is to present your points effectively while allowing for the reader to make his or her own judgment of a film. This, however, I do not feel was fairly demonstrated on the part of the aforementioned journalists.
Therefore, I leave my readers with this: with any film, view the cinematic feats with an open mind and allow every sound and sight to engross you in a palpable journey. Leave the theatre with questions, but also insight. If you find yourself at odds with a moment on screen, then explore that state of friction instead of denying its potency.