Sunday, August 13, 2017

BLACK AND BLUE: a review of "Detroit"

Screenplay Written by Mark Boal
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
**1/2 (two and a half stars) 

It is more than fitting that the film "Detroit," the latest docudrama from Director Kathryn Bigelow would be released at this time. For not only does the film mark the 50th anniversary of the historical events as depicted within the film, therefore holding up a shattering mirror to ourselves in 2017 where the issues presented have not progressed even one millimeter. This film has also happened to coincidentally arrived, and I have even seen it for myself, at the same time that neo-Nazis marched in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia carrying torches, sticks and whatever else, chanting Nazi slogans and driving a car directly into the crowd of protesters, murdering one.

Ain't a damn thing changed but the day.

Yet, somehow, I am troubled by this film. Deeply troubled. Not for entirely what was presented. I think my questions are housed more within Kathryn Bigelow's intents and purposes for even wanting to make this film--an issue I had powerful feelings about with her previous film "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012), her critically acclaimed film concerning the hunt for Osama bin Ladin, which brazenly promoted the concept that United States interrogation tactics involving torture were directly effective and even responsible for our successful execution--an assessment that has been widely proven to vehemently false, a contradiction that Bigeow herself was unable to effectively address while on the interview circuit for that film. It was a cowardly move if there ever was one, especially considering the fact that she did indeed make a film that, while deeply effective and brilliantly filmed, was one that dangerously serves as jingoistic propaganda.

Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" was a film so disingenuous that it begged the question of why she even made the film when she was unable or unwilling to stand by what she had made. Unfortunately, I feel that we are again at this same conceptual crossroads with "Detroit."  There is no question that Kathryn Bigelow remains a searing filmmaker and I certainly do not feel that her sense of moral outrage is insincere. But I am, however, struggling with the experience of what she has amassed with "Detroit" to the point of again questioning why she even made the film to even who precisely is this film meant for.

Kathryn Bigelow's "Detroit" with events that took pace on July 23, 1976, as the Detroit police staged a raid upon an unlicensed club during a celebration for returning Black war veterans. With this event serving as the proverbial straw that has broken the Black community's collective backs regarding the contentious relationship between citizens and the police department, the 12th Street Riots--complete with rampant firebombings and lootings, plus the arrival of the Michigan National Guard and Army paratroopers.

From here, Bigelow begins to introduce us to the collective of core characters within the film including Detroit police officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), who guns down a feeling Black male against orders yet is allowed to remain on duty until his superiors decide whether to file murder charges; Melvin Dismukes (an excellent John Boyega), a private security guard for a neighborhood grocery store, Larry Reed (standout Algee Smith), original lead singer of The Dramatics who dreams of a potential future life on stage and as a recording artist and his close friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore).

After making their way from the maelstrom of the riots to find refuge at the Algiers Motel for the night, Larry and Fred hook up with two White women, Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), who then introduce them to their friends Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), Aubrey Pollard (Nathan Davis Jr.) and Greene (Anthony Mackie), a returning Vietnam war veteran.

Once Carl stages a prank with a starter pistol and then further fires the pistol at the police, the s hots are mistaken as sniper fire forcing the troops to converge upon the motel with Krauss' Detroit police detail arriving soon thereafter during which Krauss murders Carl, plants a knife beside his dead body as "evidence" and finally rounds up the remaining patrons of the Algiers and faces them against a wall for a harrowing interrogation period during which all of the suspects are subjected to nothing less than the physical and psychological torture of "The Death Game," where Krauss and his men take one suspect at a time into a room for mock executions designed to terrify the others into confessions.

From here, Bigelow follows the characters through the aftermath of the events at the Algiers Motel.

Kathryn Bigelow's "Detroit" is a brutal, unflinchingly painful film and so it should be considering the horror of the subject matter. It is a riveting experience, intensely written, filmed and acted by the entire cast and I especially liked how Bigelow began with a wide panoramic view of the events of the 12th Street Riots, and then gradually narrowed her focus to the tormenting intimacy of the Algiers only to widen it again for the film's final third, which examines the wider legalities of the Algiers aftermath.

Now, as with "Zero Dark Thirty" and even moreso with Clint Eastwood's downright irresponsible right wing propaganda fantasy "American Sniper" (2014),  B igelow has again demonstrated how effective of a filmmaker she is, especially as she has extended her cinematic vision from more genre escapism to more topical, political projects. For all intents and purposes, "Detroit" is as much of a war film as Bigelow's excellent "The Hurt Locker" (2008) but the war in question is the one waged upon the streets of the inner cities.

One of Bigelow's triumphs with "Detroit" is to show the parallels between then and now as frankly, if any of you have been paying attention to the news over these last few years, especially concerning the 2014 protests and riots in Ferguson, Missouri after the murder of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson (which incidentally reached its third anniversary on August 9th), it would not be at all surprising if some viewers thought that Bigelow had inserted present day riot footage of Black citizens clashing with militarized forces into her period based film.

Additionally, the film's final third, which features a series of police station interrogations, courtroom sequences as well as some especially fine acting work from both John Boyega and Algee Smith, Bigelow does wield some powerful drama showcasing the historically systemic, institutionalized racism at work within the police and justice system, arranged and designed to protect those in power and are ultimately based deeply within the constructs of the slave trade itself. And then, there is the work within the Boyega character, an officer of the law within a community that distrusts him and within an industry that will never view him as an equal player but even as someone who just may be expendable. Great work unquestionably.

But even with that much to feel positive about towards "Detroit," I still found myself feeling uneasy as if Kathryn Bigelow had somehow usurped something for herself, either through some misguided cultural appropriation, White guilt or White privilege.

I guess what I am wrestling with is the question of whether Kathryn Bigelow possesses the right to even tell this particular story about American history, or more specifically Black American history. Certainly, I firmly believe that any and ever filmmaker has the creative right to tell whatever stories that they wish to tell. No question. What I am pondering concerns a certain moral rightness. Of course, it could (and has) easily be argued that say Steven Spielberg should never have made "The Color Purple" (1985) or "Amistad" (1997) as he is not Black or definitely that Quentin Tarantino should never have even conceived of something like "Inglorious Basterds" (2009) or "Django Unchained" (2012) as he is not either Jewish or Black.

But for me, after having seen those films, both Spielberg and Tarantino showcased not only a greater humanity but a deeply moral and cerebral outrage that elicited to me that these filmmakers really turned themselves inside out for their material in order to unearth the unquestionable truths within their respective subject matters. Basically, regarding any of the racial and sexual differences between the filmmakers and the subject of their chosen material, is each instance it felt as if both Spielberg and Tarantino came upon stories they simply had to tell.  Yet, with Kathryn Bigelow and "Detroit," I am not so sure...and it showed, regardless of her cinematic heft and skill.

In an interview Kathryn Bigelow conducted with Variety, published on August 1, 2017, she openly pondered the following to writer Brent Lang: "I thought, 'Am I the perfect person to tell this story? No.' However, I am able to tell this story and its' been 50 years since it has been told." 

But, honestly, is that enough?

Now dear readers, I have to again stress to you that I do not know Kathryn Bigelow in real life and I have absolutely nothing against her as a human being or as a filmmaker whatsoever. For all I know, the story of "Detroit" is indeed a story she may have felt that she had to tell. I will never know. But, something really felt off and even  hurtful to me as I watched the film, so much so that I wondered if it was even a film that was designed for me or any Black people to be viewing at all. Maybe, just maybe, "Detroit" was Bigelow's way, as a White woman, to speak to other White people about the historical realities of police brutality against Black people and the institutionalized systemic racism that remains paramount today. But then, it is more than conceivable that Black people WILL be seeing this movie and truth be told, I am conflicted and confused as to what exactly is in this movie that is designed for us.

What I am alluding to is the film's extended interrogation centerpiece at the Algiers Motel which runs over the course of one full hour or more of the film's entire running time. During that interminable stretch, we are subjected to varying levels of racist driven torture plus mental and physical brutality that is (rightfully) excruciating and exhausting but it was also (almost) numbing and even excessive to the point where I just had to ask the following question to myself as I watched: "How much Black suffering do I have to sit through just for Kathryn Bigelow and her White screenwriter, White producers and team can potentially receive awards?" 

By the nature of Kathryn Bigelow simply being who she is as a White woman and being a veteran filmmaker skilled enough to know h ow to make images resonate best, there was just something lost in the translation from her cinematic hands to endless scenes of Black torture and suffering with copious sweat, cowering, beatings, begging, praying, and pleadings for survival that all occurred without any sense of internalized context. This is not meant to suggest that Bigelow carried no sense of empathy but something just didn't feel terribly authentic.

Think of it this way: If you remember the horrific rape scene that opens her film "Strange Days" (1995), just imagine the difference if that scene had been directed by that film's screenwriter James Cameron instead of her. If that scenario played out, "Strange Days" ran the risk of coming off as exploitative and for me, that is how so much of "Detroit" came off to me. There is indeed a subjectivity at work and I feel that line, too often was dangerously crossed if not fully disrespected in "Detroit." Not maliciously, I do not think But if say Black filmmakers like Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay, Steve McQueen or Spike Lee had made this film, I feel that they woud have made different creative choices. As it stands, I could not shake the feeling that Kathryn Bigelow used the exploitation of Black suffering for White critical applause and acclaim. That is indeed an example of White privilege.

And even then, there was a  greater issue. Deep within the film's end credits, a notation scrolled past explaining that since not all of the events of the Algiers were properly documented, interviews were conducted with some of the real life principals and therefore some instances were dramatized for effect. Now, I know very well that films which are branded with the "Based On A True Story" moniker, the suggestion is implicit that events seen in the film have most likely been fictionalized. I get that. I know that in films based upon real events, sequences and characters are indeed dramatized or composites of real people are created to make one character for the film and so on. This is nothing new.

Yet, once I read those words in the credits for "Detroit," at a point when most people have exited the theater, I carried the same feelings I had when I saw Nate Parker's well intentioned but deeply troubled "Birth Of A Nation" (2016) as it was a film riddled with historical inaccuracies and inventions that undercut the truth and power of a story that inherently contained palpable truth and power.

For you see, even if the film is sitting thematically upon the right side of moral justice as I do feel that "Detroit" is, if so much needed to be invented to create a narrative, then that does not serve anyone any good whatsoever. What is disturbing in the case of "Detroit" is that one piece of end credit material as it did, whether intentionally or not, force the questions: "How much was invented?," "What was invented?," "Why was it invented?" and so on. At a time when Black people are still not considered to be human beings and the Black Lives Matter movement continues to be viewed with derision, how is a film like "Detroit" of any benefit when however much of it is essentially falsified?

Look, I do think that Kathryn Bigelow had her heart in the right place and "Detroit" does succeed upon its own sobering yet blistering force. But still, and going back to her own words, just because Kathryn Bigelow could tell this story does not mean that she should tell this story.

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