Some Hollywood types are offering a bus tour of the city I live in and I leap at the opportunity. My presence, however, seems to raise questions about whether a writer for the national press can possibly live in Detroit. This does not bode well for the excursion, which is teeming with entertainment reporters from New York and LA, who speculate on what can be seen out the windows based on two sources of information: the ruin porn that’s dominated media since a famed 2009 Time cover story proclaimed the city a “tragedy,” and Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film, which distills five famously violent days from the city’s 316-year history into a story about one very—very—bad night.
Fifty years and two days prior, Detroit police had raided an unlicensed club—a “blind pig”—one hot summer night, making mass arrests. Bystanders grew agitated, then outraged. The display of force had hit a nerve. The officers were members of the city’s 95 percent white police force and the arrestees primarily black. The agitation in the streets spread, despite police pressure, and Michigan Governor George Romney called in the National Guard—only increasing hostilities. On July 25, 1967, exactly fifty years before my Hollywood bus tour, the downtown Fox Theater shut down during the revolt, sending talented young black musician Larry Reed and his band the Dramatics home before their big debut. What Reed experienced that night is the basis for Bigelow’s Detroit.
The film will therefore premiere this evening at the Fox, offering us—and I am white, as is Bigelow, which demands acknowledgment—a taste of what Reed was denied when he was kicked out of the theater. The press tour we are on aims to show off four artist-created ads for the film installed throughout the gentrified parts of the city. Each was created by a different talented and (thankfully) local creative, one of whom gets on the mic to fill the silence from the official tour guides. He cracks jokes about the sites we pass, and the bus turns toward Eastern Market.
Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film distills five famously violent days from the city’s 316-year history into a story about one very—very—bad night.
This is a lively neighborhood, with farm-to-table restaurants, where hand-painted murals from the last decade ably offset the film’s ham-fisted branding. Were any rioters present, presumably with projectiles at hand, we could definitively prove that we are a stone’s throw away from the former neighborhood Black Bottom, named for the rich soil left by a riverbed that city planners later turned into a sewage canal. During the Great Migration, the neighborhood emerged as a center for black-owned businesses and nightlife; Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie all played nearby. It was where Aretha Franklin’s father, a reverend, led the New Bethel Baptist Church. Tough economic times always hit the community hard, however: black workers at the Big Three were first kept from jobs by racist hiring practices, then offered only entry-level positions, so were the first to be let go at any sign of a recession. Over the years, buildings in Black Bottom fell into disrepair, then disuse. In the early 1960s, under the guise of urban renewal, the city kicked out residents and razed the neighborhood, installing instead a highway and Mies van der Rohe’s Lafayette Park.
A more devastating and abrupt cultural genocide is barely imaginable in contemporary America. A white city government burned down a historic center for black music and culture in favor of a high-speed roadway for affluent visitors and a eye-catching example of European modernism. It was a short-sighted move, too, as the city’s demographics were undergoing dramatic change between 1960 and 1970, when the black population rose from just over a quarter to nearly half of the million-and-a-half residents of Detroit, while whites took to the suburbs. Few events can be said to have directly contributed to the violence of 1967, but the eradication of the historic black neighborhood during a black population boom did just that.
Back on the bus, another local jokes to the muralist on the mic that he should point out Black Bottom for the media. The artist, laughing, shuts down the idea. “We don’t want to scare people,” he says. The line between what Detroit reveals of Detroit and what it doesn’t then crystalizes: Bigelow wants to scare people, clearly, with jittery, overlong scenes of young black men suffering abuse at the hands of white cops. What she does not want to show is the deeply abiding racial injustice that guides, even today, in-place city policies and plans for economic revitalization, not to mention the police force. Nor does she want to show how strongly, and successfully, the city’s black population continues to fight for justice.
Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit compresses five days of occasionally gleeful and often justified destruction from fifty years ago into two-and-a-half tension-filled hours. Bigelow and screenwriter, Mark Boal, the former journalist she partnered with on Zero Dark Thirty and Hurt Locker, have gone to great lengths, they promise, to source their movie in widely unknown truths. So, we are made to believe, the following narrative offered by the film is not a matter of cinematic convenience; it is what happened in real life.
The film shows Motown hopefuls the Dramatics exiting the Fox to the chaos-filled streets. Reed and the shy but charming manager of the band struggle homeward, despite the city-wide uprising. The two stop at the nearby Algiers Motel to wait out the havoc and fall in with some guests, one of whom, Carl, jokingly pulls out a starter pistol and takes laughing aim at the National Guard, which has amassed down the block. The pop-gun noise brings about a police raid on the establishment, led by bad-apple cop Philip Krauss. Krauss storms the motel’s annex and immediately kills the jokester without identifying him as such; he then lines up the remaining guests in the hallway and begins a several-hours-long investigation into the identity of the shooter and the location of the gun. (It has disappeared, but strangely, none of the guests who witnessed it in action acknowledge it under torture, explain that it was not a weapon, or give up dead guy Carl as the doer.) The three white policemen behind the interrogation are joined by a black security guard, Melvin Dismukes, who positions himself as mediator between the torturers and the tortured.
The interrogation subjects Reed, his manager, several other black male guests of the hotel, and two young white women to abuses that are brutal and flagrantly needless —even by the internal logic of the film—yet build in intensity as no one comes forward to admit guilt. By morning, three young men are dead, two young women sexually abused, and the remaining survivors—eventually released—emotionally brutalized in a manner rarely shown onscreen, unless you watch a lot of Kathryn Bigelow movies. An eventual trial results in no justice for survivors, nor for any of the dead, and what we are presented with as Dismuke’s wrongful arrest; viewers are given to understand that the young black men who survived the night’s events were scarred for life, which, it is further implied, lies at the base of ongoing racial struggles in America.
For its misguided sense of truth and perky glorification of violence, the narrative fits comfortably in Bigelow’s diverse oeuvre, which comprised (in part) three episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street, a music video for New Order, and the Keanu Reeves surf-action vehicle Point Break before state violence became her métier. The Hurt Locker (2008), her first picture with Boal, closely rendered an adrenaline-addicted bomb-diffuser with U.S. forces in Iraq sans acknowledgment that many saw the ongoing military presence as hostile. (A point even George W. Bush conceded later that year by agreeing to a timeline for troop withdrawal.) More famously, Zero Dark Thirty (2012) justified, celebrated, and—hooray feminism—weirdly degendered the role of prisoner torture in the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. Although Capitol Hill publicly denounced the film as pro-torture propaganda, later Freedom Of Information Act requests proved that Bigelow and Boal had worked closely with the CIA on minute details of script and scenery. Nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Original Screenplay, Zero Dark Thirty only took home Best Sound Editing in 2013; Hurt Locker had been nominated in nine categories three years earlier, winning Best Picture, Best Director, and several others, in 2010.
A white city government burned down a historic center for black music and culture in favor of a high-speed roadway for affluent visitors and an eye-catching example of European modernism.
Detroit (2017) was supposed to be the team’s victory lap, the return of the prodigals to U.S. soil, the casting of their unflinching eyes toward domestic matters of international import. Yet the project is hindered by the team’s now-established tendency to apologize for state-inflicted abuse: Detroit ascribes blame for half a century of black oppression to a single rogue white cop with a cartoonishly bad attitude, and then it glories in the many young black men he tortures and murders—the film too grainy and the lighting too hastily considered to distinguish them from each other, to humanize black lives in general—and then glories again as this bad-apple cop is never held accountable for his crimes.
Always on brand, Bigelow uses the term “journalism” to describe her latest film, and position it as a reaction to the police murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Philando Castile. Yet a great many details presented as factual are invented or remain in dispute, and the film doesn’t merely fail to honor the memories of contemporary young black men murdered by white police. Detroit rewrites history to present a world where black lives don’t matter at all.
The Ultimate Racist
The site of the former Algiers Motel, a particularly awkward omission from the Hollywood bus tour of the city, is unsettling. Demolished in the 1970s, the grounds have been stripped clean, the land leveled and seeded with grass as if the buildings themselves were incriminating statements in a heavily redacted government document. No memorial indicates the trauma induced at the site, for which no one was ever convicted.
Bigelow and Boal offer no reparations. While their film shines light on a discouragingly dark moment in U.S. history, it does so with a famously shaky camera and a questionable speed of film. In focusing tightly on a single incident, the narrative shrinks also the beam of light it could shine on the culpable. All responsibility—for the incident at Algiers, the physical and cultural destruction of the city that Bigelow and Boal intended it to stand for, and the ongoing problem of white police violence against young black men in America—is placed on the shoulders of racist cop Krauss. In an establishing scene, Krauss murders a black man on the street. He utters racist epithets. He clenches around black characters. Played by sexily unattractive twenty-four-year-old Brit Will Poulter, the character is so clownish that, in a press conference, the rest of the cast jokingly referred to him as “The Ultimate Racist,” a tacit acknowledgment of the character’s amalgamation of inhuman traits.
Indeed, Krauss’s abilities are superhuman. He goads other cops into over-the-top intimidation tactics, before he sort-of-by-accident tricks one into murdering a detainee. This could be a powerful turning point in the film—can one man’s rampant racism reflect and become emboldened by the institution it thrives in?—but in Detroit, it is not. A National Guardsman, who witnesses and participates in the torture, eventually absents himself from the scene and the official record; the Michigan State Police who witness the abuses quickly do the same. That two separate institutions, as well as two initial skeptics on the same police force, offered tangible support to the continued police torture of young black men might have been underscored in a narrative that looked at how the project of white supremacy works in reality. Instead, Bigelow and Boal give us a film about an especially brutal cop and his two gullible pals, in service of the unoriginal contention that racism is bad.
Regardless of message, Detroit reinflicted violence, by whites, on the bodies of young black men, and not in history. It did this on set.
The localization of bias, however excessive, in one character—much as in real life—has the convenient benefit of allowing the storytellers to gentrify the facts. The Algiers Motel incident was not the fault of a single city police officer, and even if we widen the scope of blame to include the rest of the overwhelmingly white Detroit Police Department, and note the culpability in absentia of the Michigan State Police and the National Guard, the fact is that what was going on in Detroit was not unique to Detroit. Overall, 159 different black-led rebellions occurred in cities around the country during the summer of 1967. Anti-black violence was, and remains, a mainstay of policing, but even that was only a part of what sparked mass unrest around the nation. Anti-black housing policies, racial segregation, redlining, and preferential hiring for white workers were standard tactics of economic and social oppression—throughout the North, throughout Michigan, and in Detroit. The film’s appropriative nod to this is a brilliant opening animation based on Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, tempera paintings on board completed in 1941 that depict the human experience of escape from the blatantly anti-black South to a land where racial oppression took less obvious forms. Because these lessons are underscored nowhere in the rest of the film, however, they are lost in the melee of the raid on the blind pig that initiates a live-action sequence that quickly drops us in the hallway of a stale motel.
I do not mean to suggest that Detroit is merely misleading, although it is that. It is also incorrect. For all the journalistic cred Boal professes, the film’s central character Philip Krauss is an invention, a fiction, very much a straw man. There were three real Detroit Police Department officers involved in the incident at Algiers—and their names were David Senak, Ronald August, and Robert Paille—but their stories are not told in Detroit. Their stories are, however, told in John Hersey’s 1968 book, The Algiers Motel Incident, but Hersey’s estate wouldn’t sell Bigelow and Co. the film rights. Still, these names almost certainly came up in the interviews and documents Boal claims to have based his script on. Boal’s decision, therefore, to invent a particularly nasty white dude as a cipher—one who deflects from the real-life historical doings of a white dude who appears to have been just as bad named David Senak—is wholly disturbing.
The needless invention of Krauss would be arguably less bizarre were the stated object of his attentions not also unprovable. Remember the starter pistol Carl supposedly shot off toward the National Guard? In the real world, it was never found. Some eyewitness reports include it, but not all of them. This could mean any number of things, from the possibility that it never existed—and that the pretense for the raid was wholly invented—to the chance that it may have been a real pistol, which would ascribe slightly more credibility to initial police concerns, although it would by no means excuse the police actions that followed. Yet we do not have any basis on which to speculate, because we do not know whether or not the object existed. Bigelow and Boal go ahead and show us a starter pistol anyway, and then, in apparent acknowledgment that some accounts never included it, pin this ambiguity on a roomful of torture victims, who, desperate to escape their tormenters, fail to respond to questions about its existence.
Detroit is a complicated place, and I have spent the last year and a half in residence trying to find a way to write about it fairly. Bigelow and Boal certainly weren’t going to be able to accomplish the task in the roughly three days they spent filming in the city (one of which, I gather, was in Hamtramck, a different city entirely), and so they made some expedient plot choices. These pile up quickly, so far amounting to the failure to name a potential real-life super-racist cop and the corollary decision to depict a black victim of police murder, Carl (played by Jason Mitchell), as hotheaded and unthinking, character traits that audiences are primed to interpret as asking for it—or, as Michael Brown was described in the weeks after his death, “no angel.”
Yet such details are mere window dressing compared to the foundational problems of the film: Bigelow and Boal include no substantial black female characters; they fail to depict any black families not in distress; and, alarmingly, they choose to end their historical narrative before any black-led response emerged from the Algiers incident. Even the film’s premise, that the tortures in the motel hallway spread an unremitting sorrow among the black population of the city, doesn’t quite pass muster. Prior to the uprisings—read by many, although not western capitalist hegemonic media, as liberatory—Detroit was approaching a black-white population equilibrium. Think about it: people don’t flock toward danger, or toward sorrow; they flee. Had the so-called riots been universally witnessed as Bigelow sees them—as the onset of a disabling disaffection—how could the city have become, thereafter, the blackest city in America? From Bigelow’s narrative, we might falsely conclude that black folks desire oppression.
Today, the 82 percent black city that is Detroit puts up a pretty good fight against oppression, with plenty of guidance from smart, black feminine voices demanding accountability on pressing municipal concerns, from water shut-offs to home foreclosures. Early social media criticism was right to call out Bigelow for ignoring black women. And yet a consultant for the film, writer and former Detroit resident, the Reverend Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, offered a riposte in a defensive piece for Elle. “There are no black women prominently featured in Detroit because none figured into what happened at the Algiers that night,” he writes.
This is true only if we ignore Clara Gilmore, the receptionist at the Algiers. She’d heard gunshots that night and, according to Hersey’s report, witnessed troops mobilizing. She and her coworkers were convinced something was up, but feared for their own safety, and stayed quiet until their shifts ended. Upon discovery of the bodies, Gilmore placed a call to the morgue, asking them to pick up the three young black men she found in the annex. The morgue called the police; that is how anyone discovered there was ever an incident at the Algiers. (Bigelow’s version of the motel also has a black female receptionist, played by the ebullient Samira Wiley and named Vanessa; she does not figure strongly in the plot.)
Gilmore’s story is one of long-standing racialized terror, and the care work required to withstand it—a feminized form of labor. Such labor is how Detroit, as a city, gets by, and its absence from the film that takes its name is glaring. But the worldview put forth in Detroit becomes more ominous still.
Today, the 82 percent black city that is Detroit puts up a pretty good fight against oppression, with plenty of guidance from smart, black feminine voices demanding accountability on pressing municipal concerns, from water shut-offs to home foreclosures.
Character Melvin Dismukes, played by the excessively brilliant John Boyega, is a concerned security guard, a man-off-the-street who intervenes into the unjust police violence waged against black men such as himself. (Boyega has been praised up and down for his portrayal, all earned: watching his mind churn during a pause in dialogue is riveting.) In real life, Melvin Dismukes still lives in Detroit and is apparently quite a friendly fellow (we have acquaintances in common). And in the historical record, Melvin Dismukes, alongside police officers Ronald August and Robert Paille, were found guilty of murder by a jury that included activist Rosa Parks in a People’s Tribunal convened by black city leaders in the wake of revelations regarding the incident at the Algiers.
A factual omission arguably made out of kindness—as may have been the omission of Senak, August, and Paille’s stories, too—the decision to not include the August 30, 1967, tribunal among the other trials Bigelow and Boal depict was also, in a larger sense, the erasure of factual evidence of black agency in Detroit. Held at Reverend Albert Cleage’s church under the city’s famous Shrine of the Black Madonna and convened by radical organizers Dan Aldridge and Lonnie Peek, the event attracted international press coverage and more than two thousand attendees—a meaningful counterpoint to the image of black torture at the hands of white police that Bigelow favored. The complicated but truthful story of Dismukes is a powerful one about the shifting conditions under which black lives matter, and to whom they matter; by “cleaning up” this character, Bigelow is left with a politically toothless tale about bias that is cleanly, but falsely, divided along racial lines.
Of course, naysayers will claim that you can’t jam the nuance required for deeper racial analysis into a two-and-a-half-hour film, but the Detroit Historical Museum’s exhibition, Detroit 67: Perspectives, which opened a month before the film’s premiere and takes about two hours to experience, did just that. It includes, but does not focus on, the Algiers Motel incident—possibly because that single night, with its many conflicting and even lost accounts, provides an irresponsible and incomplete vantage onto five chaotic days that were fifty years in the making and have continued to impact the city for another fifty. An intelligent, complex, and interactive look at how and why the uprisings occurred, who was involved, and what the impact on the city has been, the exhibition offers what the film promises, but fails to provide.
Detroit 67’s opening was more modest than the Detroit premiere in terms of media coverage, and lacked the five-thousand-seat historic theater to house viewers. It garnered over two thousand visitors, according to publicist Sarah Murphy. Extensive outreach was made to participants in the rebellion. (Compare this to Bigelow’s assertion that the Algiers story is virtually unknown.) Visitors were asked to respond to a series of questions both before and after their visit, and they were encouraged throughout the exhibition to share personal experiences. Remarkably, they did: the daughter of a woman who’d never spoken about the uprisings was moved to tears by historical accounts that offered glimpses of how scared her mother must have been. The daughter told me this story with tears in her eyes, and I welled up too.
Moments later, an older man turned to me who had grown up across from Ossian Sweet’s home, pictured in the exhibition because Sweet, a black doctor, had purchased a house in a white Detroit neighborhood in 1925. An angry mob had formed on Sweet’s move-in day and a man was shot; Clarence Darrow defended Sweet in court against charges of murder. Eventually acquitted, Sweet acts as a reminder about the long history of racial segregation in the city, but one that was not without hope for change, especially for the young black boy who grew up across the street from the house. “Ah, the free store,” the now-grown man told me, strolling past the displays. “They always forget to mention how much fun we had.” He flashed me a charming grin. Behind him stood an alarming replica of a tank, and in my mind the two are linked: his joy and the state violence that aimed to quash it.
Set this flash of solidarity next to a moment at the Fox premiere when the self-absorptive overreach of Detroit became so lofty that even invited guests felt the need to check it. When an onstage functionary erroneously decreed the film’s opening the first in the city since the revolt, a well-dressed woman to my right bellowed, “Beverly Hills Cop II!” The Eddie Murphy sequel offered a fitting rejoinder to the Oscar hopeful: its world premier was at the downtown Ford Auditorium, a building now demolished, in 1987.
Yet the truthiness of Detroit proved a good marketing ploy. Ads for the movie dovetailed perfectly into media coverage of the anniversary of ’67—the Fox premiere fifty years after the Dramatics’ ousting would, I am certain, have been followed by an after party at the Algiers had it not been torn down, because, irony aside, who doesn’t love a good party? One local newspaper set up a Twitter feed to virtually simulate undisputed events of the five-day hubbub on social media; a reporter for that newspaper tweeted occasional promotional bits from the cast’s tour of the city that kept getting retweeted into the newspaper’s feed. The film thus slid seamlessly into “real” history, as social media followers were treated to a string of images of buildings on fire, National Guardsmen in formation, and healthy, happy young black Hollywood actors joyfully hoisting Coney Island dogs.
Our D.W. Griffith
The genuine marvel of Detroit is that Bigelow manages to condemn racism without acknowledging white supremacy, and her deployment of the white gaze to do so has been justifiably criticized. A preemptive defense came eleven days before the film’s premiere, from a Warner Brothers Studio stage at the AT&T SHAPE Tech and Entertainment Expo. “It’s a matter of what is the message, not necessarily the delivery method,” Deadline reports that Bigelow explained before previewing a virtual reality documentary offering those in attendance a “walk” in the “shoes” of elephant rangers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Yup. Africa.
Bigelow’s pronouncement that the message is separable from—and more important than—the medium that conveys it flies in the face of fifty years of media theory, which tends to favor Marshall McLuhan’s argument that the medium is the message. Fifty years exactly: McLuhan’s groundbreaking book, The Medium is the Massage, was published in 1967, and they arose from the same concerns about who was being represented and heard—and who was not—as those that lead to the black rebellions around the nation that year. Bigelow’s statement also seems counterintuitive given her own background in the conceptualist New York art scenes of the 1970s and ’80s. Her work with Gilles Deleuze, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Michel Foucault, Kathy Acker, John Cage, and others on the 1978 “Schizo-Culture” issue of Semiotext(e)—all contemporaries of the slightly more mainstream McLuhan—makes it sort of hard to imagine she didn’t cajole the media theorist once over cocktails, during which he might have pointed out her solipsism.
Yet Bigelow’s colonialist, ignore-the-medium message is woven into the fabric of Detroit. In three separate scenes, while Reed considers the future of the Dramatics, he questions a career built on selling off black culture. His disaffection becomes palpable when, toward the end of the film, he watches a performance from the sidelines, afterwards affirming his decision to have left the band by railing against black music made for white women to dance to. When Reed sings next, it is for a small, black audience, and we are given to understand that he has turned his back on success. One might even come away from Detroit with the view that ongoing systematic racial oppression is bad because it makes talented musicians sad when they could have been famous.
Bigelow, whose own move from artsy intellectual to Oscar-winning bigwig doesn’t seem to be losing her any sleep, may be projecting. It is not atypical of Hollywood to suggest that eschewing a media platform is tragic. However, it is ludicrous for this film to forward that a victim of police torture who fails to achieve major-label success—although finds a way to contribute his talents to a community he trusts, and which supports him, and which is black—is not only a tragedy but an allegory for ongoing, national crisis.
The inability to acknowledge the support and vitality of black communities is one hallmark of Bigelow’s white gaze. Her scorn sharpens, though, in her treatment of the two white women characters supplied to witness events at the Algiers. Although the rogue cops consistently call them whores, the plot isn’t clear about their status as sex workers—they joke about screwing for needed cash but later deny accusations of prostitution. It remains unquestioned in the narrative that sex workers deserve scorn, so audiences are left with the assumption that two young white women were justifiably abused and harassed for being sex workers and, to boot, are definitely liars.
Brody proclaimed Detroit “a moral failure,” and yet it’s no one-off—it’s time to question Bigelow’s broader moral grounding.
Bigelow’s disapproval of white women who are not herself seems in keeping with the sisterhood of Semiotext(e). “Kraus’s writing . . . expresses distaste and disdain for Acker as a woman and as a writer,” Jo Livingstone writes of the new Chris Kraus biography of Kathy Acker in the New Republic. A posthumous Acker-Kraus feud, however, represents infighting among intellectuals who shared a small and probably hostile group of peers. To turn distaste and disdain toward all the women in your film—allowing white women onscreen only to call them whores, and failing to offer black women any significant screen time at all—achieves both the caliber of intellectual integrity Bigelow may be striving for and a basic misogyny.
Regardless of her intentions, Bigelow has constructed a story, and a situation, where she perseveres as the white rose—a reading she urges we ignore, as it is embedded in her means of delivery and not in the film’s plot. Following her advice—that is to say, overlooking the medium—the message of Detroit is that racism keeps talented young men from achieving their individual potential and—multiplied across a generation of individuals—a deleterious situation for America soon follows. Allowing for a consideration of the medium, however, leads us almost to the opposite message: without Bigelow’s white gaze—indeed, without white power—we wouldn’t know what was lost. Reed’s character rejected a career making records for white women to dance to; Bigelow, in defiance of his wishes, put one out anyway.
Bigelow would like us to believe that she is performing white accountability, a point driven home in Dr. Dyson’s introduction of the filmmaker at the July 25 red carpet event. “Now some people say, ‘Why a white woman gotta do it?’” he asked from the stage. “To clean up the mess that white people made!”
Yet too strict a rhetorical focus on contemporary white accountability, set against a narrative backdrop in which black agency has been erased and punitive measures for behaviors by white people denied in the courts, reinforces a social world in which white people hold exclusive responsibility to correct abuses of power—because white people hold all power. This, in fact, is how white supremacy works: as a multi-faceted project embedded in systems and structures of support that each, by separate design, tend to politically and culturally oppress people of color and uplift white people. Just as a vegan may freely operate a sausage-making machine, one doesn’t have to be a racist, or even white, to uphold white supremacy.
You can, in other words, broadcast a message about a horrible incident that took place under a racist system, while doing so in a medium that primarily serves to denigrate people of color and benefit white people. Black lives matter, sure: there they are, hoisting drinks at the blind pig, or picking up a few soon-to-be-expired groceries from an already-raided store with broken windows likely owned by profiteering white folks who don’t even live in the neighborhood. And there they are again, bleeding on the ground, or bleeding in a dingy motel hallway. Yet the white lives that interrupt them clearly matter more, and not just within the historical narrative which sees them relieved and happy, absolved of responsibility by the courts. For regardless of message, Detroit reinflicted violence, by whites, on the bodies of young black men, and not in history. It did this on set.
In SET-UP, Bigelow’s first film from 1978, she freely crossed the line between art and life by allowing her actors to physically beat one another. “I knew exactly what I wanted . . . but I didn’t understand that you fake shots and fake hits and put sound effects in,” she says in a 1995 interview, quoted in Vulture in 2014: “[T]hese guys were getting bloodier and bloodier. They were in bed for two weeks after, I almost killed them.” Press materials for Detroit describe similar emotional effects on the cast during shoots—although, tellingly, most describe the emotional trauma Poulter experienced portraying a racist. “What Bigelow has her actors do for the benefit of the camera is repellent to imagine,” Richard Brody writes in The New Yorker, more likely thinking of characters like Anthony Mackie’s Greene, an Army veteran returning from war only to suffer further abuses in the motel hallway.
Brody proclaimed Detroit “a moral failure,” and yet it’s no one-off—it’s time to question Bigelow’s broader moral grounding. Communications accessed under FOIA show that the filmmaker was thrilled by her partnership with the CIA on Zero Dark Thirty, at one point plying a female officer with expensive gifts. A pair of pearl earrings turned out to be phony, although this failed to quell Langley’s enthusiasm for the project. “It makes sense to get behind a winning horse,” one officer wrote about Bigelow and Boal’s film, The Atlantic reports. It’s praise enough to wonder if we won’t eventually discover some agency’s fingerprints on this project, too, particularly given the FBI’s identification of “Black Identity Extremists”—a strange description that appears to target only those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement—as a terrorist threat. Condemn acts of racism, Kathryn, of course! Just don’t rock the boat.
“Our Leni Riefenstahl,” she’s been called by critics ranging from Naomi Wolf to John Pilger to Glenn Greenwald, and—perhaps more correctly—“Our D. W. Griffith,” by a handful of others. But in her quest to become a propagandist of such renown, Kathryn Bigelow would be wise to choose stories to share that a million residents of the city they’re named for can’t see right through.