I almost walked out near the end of the hour-long torture scene because I knew there was almost an hour left of the film and I didn’t know how for how much longer it would be that brutal.
I regret not leaving. I regret watching it in the first place. I should have stayed in the lobby with my library book like I did when we showed Stonewall and also that movie where Seth Rogen plays a hot dog.
The largest portion of the movie is devoted to reveling in the time in the Algiers Motel – the beatings, the murders, the ongoing mental anguish – in a way that verges on pornographic. “Look at this; isn’t it terrible?” the movie says, and yes of course it is and it’s obviously powerfully constructed, but the movie doesn’t care to say anything else about it. Just “look at this thing in the past and be horrified.”
Samira Wiley has a cameo role as the desk clerk, and as the movie progressed I thought again about her character’s death on Orange is the New Black. Some of the same questions are raised by Detroit, “who is this story for?” being the primary one, and the answer once again being “white people who somehow don’t get it yet” and – spoiler – they’re not seeing this movie anyway.
Detroit is also like OITNB with its excessive humanizing of white men. It is very concerned with excusing white people from responsibility, particularly near the end where a survivor encounters a white cop who asks, “Who could do this to someone?”, as well as a scene where Poulter’s ringleader cop is specifically called out as racist. I did not for a second believe either of those interactions. In fact, I audibly groaned at the first one.
By arguing “Not All Cops”, the film excuses the inherent violence of a system of policing born from slavery that continues to murder black people consequence-free today.
Telling this story, especially tied as it is to the 50th anniversary of the incident, gives white audiences – the audience it was made for – a pass, allowing them to compartmentalize this story as the past. But it’s obviously not the past. There’s even a throwaway scene of a small girl being mistaken for a sniper & shot at. The film doesn’t care enough to tell us what happens to her, but children are still being shot in their homes and on their playgrounds and in their streets, so I still care.
This was all unfortunately more or less expected. So why did I see it? The cast, mostly. And thus as I sat there, I thought about all of the different stories about black lives we could be watching instead. This story, the story of black men murdered and white men freed is a story we see all the time, still. If you don’t get it, I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t know how to argue that white people should care except, ironically, through more stories. But the stories need to be the wide-ranging, complex stories mediocre white men get all the time, and not yet another story about the destruction of black bodies.
And finally, yes, these stories can still be told by white people. One of my favorite films of last year, The Fits, is a story about black girls directed by a white woman. It was a film that taught me things about gender, about growing up, about existing in a group, about a particular community of young black girls.
Detroit taught me nothing.