(Spoilers for Detroit to follow)
Kathryn Bigelow’s track record as a director of thrilling pulp is above reproach (Point Break, The Hurt Locker), but her collaborations with screenwriter Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, Detroit) depicting real-life events (in the case of latter two) are beginning to display a troubling pattern of factual and emotional sloppiness. Zero Dark Thirty told the CIA-approved story of Osama Bin Laden’s kill operation (the one that reportedly tracked him through his courier) from the perspective of a not-especially-believable composite character played by Jessica Chastain, which many argued justified torture along the way, and at the very least depicted a kill operation in a detached, clinical way that allowed Americans to once again cheer extra-judicial vengeance without at least having to confront the blood and guts it entails.
Detroit‘s factual inadequacies are subtler, but less understandable, both narratively and historically. And in both cases the movies seem to add “drama” but not insight. This not only makes for a flawed piece of storytelling, but when you’re dealing with living history and thorny political issues, it’s actively harmful. Why retell if you’re not going to try to understand?
Detroit depicts a chapter in the Civil Rights Era unrest in Detroit that has come to be known as the Algiers Motel Incident. The incident occurred against the backdrop of the 12th Street Riot, which, as the film depicts, kicked off when police raided a black-owned bar that had been operating illegally, during a party for returning Vietnam veterans. As shown in Detroit‘s opening scenes, a mob formed when police began taking away bar patrons in paddy wagons, at first throwing bottles and then escalating into arson and looting before spreading and eventually growing into in a full-scale riot. To restore order, the government called in the National Guard, the Michigan State Police, and, most crucially, the notoriously racist, 93% white Detroit City Police.
The film tells the story from the perspective of a few of the people caught up in it. One is a police officer named “Krauss” (played by milk-faced eyebrow merchant Will Poulter). Krauss seems to be a fictionalized version of the 24-year-old Detroit Police Officer David Senak, who shot and killed a fleeing looter during the riots, but was inexplicably placed back on duty. The film depicts these events in the opening scenes, and Krauss takes the news that he’s being charged with murder with disturbing calm.
It’s a strong opening. There’s a power to both Krauss’s apparent certainty of being eventually exonerated by his white peers (Senak was), and in his blasé attitude toward it all. “He was running away, what the hell was I supposed to do?” Krauss asks, honestly curious, as if shooting an unarmed black man in the back with a shotgun was just the logical thing to do. There’s some insight into a structural understanding of racism here. Krauss can seem outwardly normal but is capable of atrocity simply because of his worldview. Detroit mostly doesn’t use one character’s sadism as a dissociative device (it’s easy to pretend you’re nothing like racists if you depict them as cackling ghouls), which is admirable.
Other major players in the drama include Melvin Dismukes (real name of the real person), played by John Boyega, a beefy factory worker moonlighting as a security guard called in to protect a local business; Fred Temple and Larry Reed (Jacob Latimore and Algee Smith), members of soul group The Dramatics; Juli Hysell and Karen Malloy (Hannah Murray, a.k.a. Game of Thrones‘ Gilly, and Kaitlyn Dever), two white hitchhikers from Columbus; Robert Greene, a black Vietnam vet played by Anthony Mackie; and Carl Cooper and Auburey Pollard, a couple of neighborhood characters, played, respectively by Jason Mitchell (previously Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton and who’s so damned good and should be in everything) and Nathan Davis Jr.
(*) He’s named “Aubrey” according to IMDB, though reports from the Detroit Free Press and John Hersey’s 1968 book on the incident, The Algiers Motel Incident, both have him as “Auburey.”
As the city burns around them, all these characters converge at the Algiers Motel, where the bulk of the movie takes place. The proverbial spark setting off the entire incident, according to the movie, is the moment Cooper, during an impromptu party in his room at the Algiers, attempting to demonstrate to the two white girls what it’s like to be black in Detroit, starts ordering around another black partygoer in an imitation of a white police officer, using what turns out to be a starter pistol filled with blanks. After pretending to shoot the partygoer, he fires a few blanks out the window as a joke.
The police and national guard hear the blanks and think they’re dealing with a sniper. (That’s not an insane notion for the time and place, especially as depicted in the movie, which shows a black sniper shooting at a fireman trying to put out a fire earlier in the film.) They move on the Algiers in a military-style assault, immediately shooting out a street light and firing tear gas and live rounds into the window at anything that moves.
After taking the hotel, led by Krauss, three Detroit police officers line up the occupants of the hotel room in the hall and begin a process of terrorization, including playing “the death game,” which kicked off most of the events at the center of the controversy. The local police are the ringleaders with Dismukes the security guard and a National Guardsman nominally assisting the interrogation but morally caught in the middle. (The real Dismukes calls the film “99.5% accurate,” though it seems to depict him in an overly charitable light.)
The exact facts of what happened that night have never been adequately resolved, but the starter pistol, the assault on the motel, and the hallway interrogation are all elements that have been more or less firmly established. Who shot the starter pistol, who saw the shooter do it, what happened to the starter pistol, and how exactly the interrogation went down are a lot murkier. Cooper using the starter pistol to demonstrate what it’s like to live in fear of racist police seems to fall under the umbrella of “dramatic license.”
As Hersey writes in The Algiers Motel Incident, “what greater — or more bitter — irony could there be than that the three boys at the Algiers may have been executed as snipers because one of them, satirizing the uniformed men who had made them all laugh in the midst of their fear during the search that morning, had been playing with a pistol designed to start foot races, from which it was not even possible to shoot bullets?”
The movie version is Hollywood slick, making Cooper surely more eloquent and expository than he would’ve been in life, but it’s acceptably slick, even admirably so. It offers some necessary insight into the origins of the riot and the psychology of the characters. Sadly, that’s largely where the film’s insight ends.
Police and National Guard troops burst into the hotel, as Cooper tries to run out. In the film, someone shoots Cooper as he’s fleeing, and Krauss casually puts a pocket knife next to the body to justify the shooting as Cooper bleeds out. (In real life, no one testified to actually seeing Cooper get shot, so how it happened is a matter of some dispute. The movie version seems plausible enough).
Once inside, Krauss and the police line everyone against the wall then start playing “the death game,” taking witnesses into another room one by one and firing guns into the floor or ceiling to make the other witnesses think the cops are executing uncooperative witnesses. (Remember, the “gun” is a starter pistol and the “sniper” Cooper, who’s already dead). As depicted in the film, throughout a long ordeal of beatings, hotel guests are taken into other rooms their executions staged, and through a kind of dark comedy of errors, one is actually killed for real (a total of three would die that night, including Cooper). Meanwhile, the characters in the hallway either stay silent or tell the police they have no idea about any gun, saying nothing about the starter pistol.
This is the sticking point of the entire film, both factually and emotionally. Though no starter pistol was ever found, and witness accounts disagree, multiple witnesses testified to having seen it, and to telling the police about it. Would it make sense that no one would say anything about the starter pistol while they were having their friends beaten and killed in front of them and being beaten themselves? It might if that particular person hadn’t witnessed the starter pistol, which seems true of at least some of the people involved in real life. (According the Hersey, the Dramatics were downstairs during the starter pistol incident, and Anthony Mackie’s Robert Greene had been in another room.) In the movie, almost everyone being questioned has witnessed the starter pistol having been shot. And by a guy who they know is already dead. Why wouldn’t they just say so?
It might make sense if one of the witnesses feared saying something about the starter pistol might implicate him in a crime, and/or give the police even more cause to beat, harass, or frame them — which would have offered more insight, if the film had chosen to frame it that way. In real life, Michael Clarke (Malcolm David Kelley in the movie), a friend of Cooper’s, claimed there was no pistol, even after the fact. But as Hersey points out, Clarke had done time for a concealed weapon charges, which could’ve given him reason not to want to admit any knowledge or complicity for another such charge. (“Like all of his friends, he was cynical to the soles of his feet about the judicial process,” Hersey writes.) The movie never mentions this.
Yes, that fact would’ve been hard to include in a way that felt natural, and Boal and Bigelow seem to want Cooper’s speech about the fear engendered by living under the thumb of a predatory police force to explain everyone’s reticence to say anything about the starter pistol, even long after the fact — that it was the group’s well earned cynicism of police that kept them silent. And surely that’s at least partially true, but not the way the situation is depicted in Detroit. As the movie depicts it, there were still two non-black, non-Detroit residents in the room who also saw the starter pistol. Surely they would’ve said something?
In the movie, they don’t. No one does. None of the characters attempts to provide what would’ve been the obvious explanation in that situation, even after they believe their peers are being taken into another room and shot. Not only does this not make sense, it doesn’t seem to be what actually happened.
From The Algiers Motel Incident:
Thomas testified, “Immediately after the officer shot into the wall, into the floor, or corner, or wherever you want to call it, and laid the man down, they” –the people against the wall– “thought this man had been shot and they were willing to talk…. I believe it was one of the girls — I wouldn’t swear to it — said ‘Why don’t you tell him about the gun? Carl is dead anyway.’ And this is one of the statements I specifically heard to this effect.”
“One boy spoke up,” Juli testified, “and said that the boy that was dead was the one that had the pistol, and that’s the only thing that was said to my knowledge about the pistol.”
“One of the persons” Karen told Allen Early, “who had been in A-2 & come up to A-4 said, ‘Go on and tell them anything because they’ve already killed him.’ This was with reference to the blank pistol. This other person then said, ‘The guy in there on the floor’ (referring to Carl in A-2) ‘had a blank pistol.’ Policemen said, ‘Why didn’t you tell us that before we killed the other guy?””
In order to tell the story of an incident that’s become shrouded in a swirl of conflicting stories, where almost every witness has some motive to lie about exactly what happened and their responsibility for it, some invention is required. But to leave out the moment when the people in the motel who witnessed the starter pistol told the police beating them about it seems inexplicable, bordering on dangerous.
Litigating virtually every officer-involved shooting inevitably comes down to the question of, Why didn’t the suspect just do what the officer wanted? The Blue Lives Matter folks hold onto the phrase Just obey the police and everything will be fine like a talisman, and view every deviation from it more or less as justifiable homicide — as if everyone can be expected to act perfectly rationally with a gun pointed at them (it’s this psychological state that the Carl Cooper scene in the film seems intended to address). Sad situation, but if only that 16-year-old autistic boy in the midst of an episode had listened to the stranger with a gun screaming at him and carefully followed all of his instructions it never would’ve happened. We blame victims because it’s easier than empathy, easier than admitting that it could’ve been us getting beaten or shot. That would never be me, I do what the police say. It’s only a small variation on the classic justification for all types of authoritarianism — If you don’t do anything wrong you won’t have anything to hide.
Ten of these people invariably show up every time you bring up a high-profile police shooting anywhere online like a plague of uniform-worshipping locusts. It’s impossible not to hear their awful buzzing in your ear while watching Detroit. That’s outside baggage, sure, but it’s exacerbated by the flawed storytelling. I honestly can’t fathom Boal and Bigelow’s reasoning for some of their decisions. There are times it feels like the filmmakers are glossing over facts in order to depict more beating and torture. And it’s hard to watch it knowing that so much of the audience is going to leave thinking “Why didn’t they just obey the police?!”
Moreover, why tell this story if you aren’t going to explain that? Isn’t that your duty in telling this story? Without the insight (and there is some of that, earlier in the film), it’s just two hours of feel-bad torture. Even if simply eliciting revulsion was the goal, the decision making is convoluted. If anything, the film soft pedals how often the officers used the N-word and the role their horror at the idea of interracial sex played in inciting what happened that night. Karen Malloy and Juli Hysell’s clothes were torn off that night, and if anything the film is more ambiguous than witness accounts about how and why.
If we judge the storytelling in Detroit more critically than we would, say, Point Break, it’s for good reason: this film depicts real events, with characters who are real people, and contributes to an ongoing conversation. If you choose that as your subject matter, you owe us more than just great acting (and Detroit‘s cast is fantastic, from top to bottom) and cinematic shots. There are systemic, structural causes for the way many of the things went down that night. If you aren’t going to add something meaningful to the conversation, if you’re only going to further and exacerbate a divide that already exists (“cops are racist” vs. “suspects should’ve obeyed”), maybe you shouldn’t be telling it.