Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That is a key truth about one of his central concerns – race in America. Kathryn Bigelow, in her harrowingly compelling film Detroit, uses that truth as a kind of nightstick with which to beat the audience into awareness and understanding. Unlike the “enhanced interrogation” that she rather cynically validated in Zero Dark Thirty, the cinematic technique works. Rarely has vicarious blunt force trauma felt so galvanizing.
The film starts with an animated sequence of Jacob Lawrence’s renowned narrative paintings, with text captions, of African-Americans’ Great Migration in the years between World War I and World War II from southern cotton fields to northern cities. The device achieves two purposes, one expository and the other disarming. It indicates that the abject repressiveness of Jim Crow was replaced by a less visible but still virulent northern prejudice. At the same time, visual and recorded presentations of history, by encapsulating facts and holding them fixed, tend to suggest that the past is, or at least is suppose to be, all over.
Detroit’s point is that it’s not over. The action, of course, occurs in Detroit during the 1967 summer riots, and focuses on a notorious incident at the Algiers Motel in which three Detroit policemen murdered three black men in cold blood and brutalized their friends, including two young white women. But the social context of the movie’s contemporary release – Trump’s retrograde presidency, abundant police violence disproportionately against blacks – exalts Faulkner’s deeper message: the past insidiously conditions the present, and merely passing aspirational constitutional amendments and civil rights legislation has not been enough to extinguish it.
This is not a great film by any means. The main characters are thin and stereotyped, catering to entrenched preconceptions. Among the police culprits, the ringleader is nearly psychotic and the others are uninflected, ride-along racists, while their African-American victims are either manically outraged or paralyzed with fear. Yet perhaps it would have been difficult to avoid obscuring the essence of the confrontation at the Algiers had the writers and director tried to weave real subtlety into such a kinetic, visceral situation. In any case, Detroit is a good film. There is nuance elsewhere, even if it is left to side portraits like those of a black security guard yearning for white cops’ acceptance until a belated epiphany and a police detective disgusted with but resigned to his colleagues’ racism. The criticism leveled at Bigelow for gratuitously prolonging the motel scenes seems off-base. Their notional endlessness forcefully simulates the reality that for American blacks, savage abuse under color of law never seems to end.
Fortunately, Bigelow appears to have largely escaped denunciation for “cultural appropriation.” Leaving aside the overweening absurdity of attempting to aesthetically quarantine selected events, here she is dealing with aspects of America that affect the full spectrum of its people. It is precisely because too many whites have excused themselves from morally confronting the treatment of blacks that racism has continued to fester. Bigelow, at least, is one who has not opted out.
Detroit, 2017, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, written by Mark Boal.
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