MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Photo: Annapurna Pictures
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Starring John Boyega, Will Poulter
Whenever filmmakers tackle a historical topic that is filled with incredible pain and injustice, great care must be taken in revealing hard truths without crossing into exploitation of the darkness. Steven Spielberg managed to address the Holocaust with appropriate compassion and gravitas in 1993’s Schindler’s List but stumbled in his depiction of slavery’s Middle Passage in 1997’s Amistad. While 2013’s 12 Years a Slave had its share of brutal scenes of whippings and off-screen rape, the personal story of Solomon Northup’s journey made for a compelling and eventually rewarding film experience. While I have watched Schindler’s List countless times and look forward to revisiting 12 Years a Slave, I have no desire to watch Amistad ever again. Ditto Detroit.
Detroit is a well-made film by a gifted director with a talented cast that recounts the 1967 race riots of the titular city, with a prolonged real-time recreation of an encounter between Detroit police and the residents of the Algiers Motel. The firing of a starter’s pistol into the street provoked a raid and a long night of intimidation and brutality between the cops and a group of young black men and two white women who were unfortunately in the wrong place at a bad time.
The police team is under the direction of patrolman Krauss (Poulter), a young racist who not only torments the people under suspicion, but bullies his cohorts into following his lead in psychological torture of everyone in the room, including a black veteran home from the Vietnam War (Anthony Mackie), two naïve white women (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) enjoying mild flirtation with the men that they just met, and a black security guard (John Boyega) who represents a moral conscience that is nevertheless fettered by the threat of violence that might be used against him.
In many ways, Detroit plays like a horror film. Director Bigelow and writer Mark Boal are aware of the terrible nature of the things that they are depicting so the pain and grief on the faces of the victimized are real. But there is no pleasure to be gained by observing such nonstop racist brutality. 2015’s The Stanford Prison Experiment covered some of the same thematic territory as this film, but it’s script was backed up with verbatim transcripts of the events. Detroit includes composite characters (including Krauss) and imagined incidents in its fact-based storyline, which added to my discomfort.
I was particularly offended by a historical prologue at the start of the film explaining to the audience the Great Migration of blacks to the north and the subsequent white flight that followed, setting up the climate for the race riots of the 60’s. No less an authority than historian Henry Gates Jr. was recruited to do this research, but to what end?
The Cleveland neighborhood of Hough experienced race riots in 1966. I remember hearing stories from Methodist pastors about how the clergy and parishioners of the neighborhood worked together to walk the streets and work towards a peaceful resolution. I held those stories in my heart as I encountered the pain of Detroit.
Perhaps a shorter running time would have helped. Detroit clocks in at 2 hours and 23 minutes. Artists are allowed to tell the stories that they choose in the way they choose to tell them, but you don’t necessary have to attend. If you do choose to view Detroit, be advised that you are going to be entering into a hard watch. The usually reliable Common Sense Media (while advising viewing for ages 17 and up) called the film “essential” and “outstanding”.
Two halos: A disturbing reenactment of a dark time in American history fifty years ago.
Five pitchforks: Unremitting racism, violence (including manslaughter) and threats of violence; swearing; some sexual provocation; brief nudity.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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