Based on true events: During the Detroit riots, locals including a handful of teenagers, a Vietnam veteran, and members of a hometown singing group take refuge in the Algiers Motel for the night. When an ill-advised prank convinces the police patrolling the streets that a sniper has targeted them from the motel, officers detain the guests and begin a process of interrogation that quickly turns bloody.
I’m not at all surprised that Detroit became controversial; what does surprise me is the way in which it did so. For once — and more than a little strangely — it’s been a pleasant surprise. It was one of my most anticipated movies of the year, but I dreaded what I expected would happen after its release — when the alt-right’s army of trolls would descend upon every movie website in existence to arbitrarily downvote it and pollute the comments sections with racism and negativity; when Fox News would get a solid week’s worth of programming out of how anti-police it is or whatever; when people would pick apart every insipid departure from the historical record, no matter how apolitical, and try to present it as proof of its dishonesty and heavy-handedness. I hated the suspicion that it would immediately become impossible to actually discuss the film.
But the conversation that’s broken out has been surprisingly productive, understanding, and gentle in tone. Speaking broadly — obviously, individuals have their own reactions across the spectrum — this movie seems to have starkly divided black and white audiences and especially critics. In the mostly white field of film criticism, Detroit has been declared one of the year’s best — and frankly, I don’t completely disagree with that sentiment. It’s very, very good. But when you steer away from Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes and tune into lesser-known, often independent writers, you find a response that’s a little more mixed. It’s hard to say yet whether that applies to general audiences as well, but I suspect it does. If Hollywood learns anything from 2017, I certainly hope it’s that people of color also like movies, particularly those that speak to their experiences. Get Out is the year’s most profitable film. Girls Trip far exceeded anyone’s box office expectations. Despite mostly negative reviews, so did All Eyez on Me. But Detroit, arguably the most high-profile of any of those films, is looking at this early stage like a probable box office failure, despite overwhelming critical acclaim. It just isn’t bridging the divide the way those other movies did.
That’s worth paying attention to. Fortunately, that’s exactly what a lot of culture writers are doing, and the resulting discussion has been great. So that’s what I’m going to talk about here. It’s far more interesting than whether or not the movie is technically good. Moreover, it’s difficult to pick apart a movie like this and describe its effectiveness — what it does right, what it does wrong, how it could have better played to viewers’ emotions or made its point more clearly. Of course, the movie consciously makes those decisions, and any criticism or praise directed its way wouldn’t necessarily be inaccurate. But the events of this film really happened (I researched the Algiers Motel incident a bit before I saw the movie and generally found the script to be painstakingly accurate) — not only that, they happened within living memory. Dissecting that in order to assess its readiness for mass consumption feels crass. There’s nothing wrong with writing that sort of criticism, to be clear — I just don’t feel like I’m the guy to do it. Which is part of why I’m going to commit the cardinal sin of people trying to draw a readership and tell you to go read somebody else.
First, I want you to read this review by Zeba Blay on The Huffington Post. I actually disagree with bits and pieces of her opinion on the film as a whole, but the overall point was, for me, very instructive. At the end of the day, I’m a twenty-something white guy; try though I might, that means my understanding of the issues depicted here will, naturally, be distant and secondhand. What I know can only ever be what I’m told; I’ll never live it. The movie is better understood by those who have experienced these things personally, who have been close to them for years, who comprehend them fully and can explain them in detail.
The second thing I want you to read actually isn’t directly related to Detroitbut arrived at the exact perfect cultural moment, given the conversation unfolding around it. It’s yet another piece by the always great Film Crit Hulk, and it’s the hardest I’ve been hit by any piece of writing — not just film-related but in general — in a long, long time. It says a lot about the art and purpose of storytelling, the importance of listening, the necessity of separating our egos from these discussions, and the complexity of audience response in a diverse society, some of which forced me to confront things that I’ve been absolutely, utterly wrong about for years — things that are much, much bigger than movies, that touched upon more general negative attitudes I didn’t even know I had.
And please, read both of those with an open mind and a willingness to consider that you might be wrong — and remember that being wrong doesn’t make you a bad person, just a human being. This review originally had an additional thousand-plus words that I mostly scrapped after deciding I was still doing it — making it about me, trying to justify myself, trying to be “right.”
If those articles have a point, it’s that art is personal. We react to it based on our experiences. It’s impossible to make something for everyone, because there’s no objective way any given thing is going to make us feel. We’re bringing entire lifetimes into it.
All I can say is that I found value in Detroit. For me, nothing in Detroit was a revelation individually, but seeing the connections between the various levels of racism it explores helped me make a few real-life connections more easily. There’s value in seeing the way the racial dynamics of the Algiers Motel incident — young black men found in a building with two white girls — impacted the way the situation played out, how various stereotypes fed into the most basic interactions that took place that night, how the psychology of police encounters is completely different as a minority, how the justice system immediately gathers around its own and minimizes the damage it sustains underneath a veneer of what looks to an outside observer like standard legal process. Seeing that play out in real time can help someone who hasn’t experienced it understand how the dominos knock each other over. Again, I believe there’s value in that, for a certain person in a certain circumstance.
Especially given the way Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal handle it. I think a small part of the debate that’s going on, even if it isn’t always explicit, is the same as the debate about any of their movies — whether you like their journalistic style or find it too dispassionate. People still argue about whether Zero Dark Thirty is pro-torture. But I like the objectivity with which they capture history and spin a story around the way events affected one another and shaped the situation; I actually think it makes their political commentary much stronger. It may even be the reason why Detroit hasn’t been controversial in the way I expected it to be — no one is able to meaningfully argue with the facts as it presents them. It doesn’t have the overt appearance of an agenda. Any conclusions it reaches, it reaches very organically, and it forces its audience to reach them too. The most charitable possible interpretation of the unknowns surrounding the Algiers Motel incident doesn’t look much better than how Detroit reads it.
Some people don’t need that interpretation. That’s fine. Great, actually. The breadth of reactions to this movie is absolutely fascinating — what’s more, it made me realize that I have kind of insulated myself in a bubble of the writers I like and haven’t spend nearly enough time exploring. I was losing my sense of how art affects everyone differently — how we all bring our own experiences into it with us, and no two people will have exactly the same emotional response to what they’re seeing.
It’s reminded me how much we need that — we clamor for original stories, and that’s how they happen. They happen because every one of us perceives the world differently and none of us have experienced exactly the same things. We have our own way of articulating those things, making sense of them and trying to present our understanding to others and incorporate their feedback into it.
I’m grateful for Detroit. I’m grateful that it’s given us the opportunity to have this discussion, and ecstatic that it’s been happening with such open-mindedness and empathy. I can’t remember a movie that’s taught me this much — even though most of what I learned came from outside of it.
For some, it will be eye-opening, or maybe just a much-needed kick in the pants. For others, it will be torturous, overbearing, and lacking in insight, to the point that it almost plays as exploitation. For most of us, it’s probably going to be somewhere in the middle, a matter of degrees. No one will be right, and no one will be wrong. If nothing else, Detroit is proof of the ability of something as seemingly trivial as a movie to spark conversations with the potential to affect change on the largest level. Keep talking about this.
Tune in at some unspecified point in the near future (schedules are for squares), when I will (hopefully) actually justify my use of this space with an actual movie review that I wrote myself without citing sources. I am so good at this blogging thing.