Kathryn Bigelow has directed good movies. The long chase scene in Point Break where Patrick Swayze throws a pit bull at Keanu Reeves is just an entertaining piece of cinema. She’s also directed bad movies. Zero Dark Thirty was not only propaganda for the CIA and the “war on terror.” It was dull, bloated, and overly long. When she announced her intention make a movie about the Detroit riot/rebellion of 1967 — and whether you call it a riot or a rebellion says a lot about your politics — the reaction on the left was decidedly hostile. A white woman who did public relations for the Bush/Cheney torture regime direct a film about one of the largest urban insurrections in African American history? No thank you. Nevertheless, unlike many people on the left, I actually need to see a film before I give it the thumbs up or thumbs down, so I decided to check it out for myself.
So what did I think?
Since I often get my first impression of a film by the kind of trailers they show before the film even begins, my first impression was not good. The first trailer up was for the Bruce Willis reboot of Death Wish, a vicious 1970s movie that glorified a serial killer in the guise of a vigilante. The second was for what appears to be a pro-war-on-terror movie called American Assassin. What’s more, I was the only person in the movie theater. True, it was 4 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, but I often go to movies at odd hours, and this was the first time I’ve ever had an entire movie theater to myself. After the trailers were over, however, and Detroit got going, I began to find myself getting involved. Kathryn Bigelow does have talent, and the first half hour of the movie, the police raid on the “Blind Pig” nightclub that started the whole thing, was engaging and skillfully done. Bigelow does manage to capture the chaos and disorienting terror of a violent insurrection, and an equally violent police crackdown.
Then we got to the Algiers Motel.
As embarrassed as I am to admit it, I know little about the history of the Newark or Detroit riots/rebellions of the 1960s. I suppose that makes me the typical American. I’m sure Bigelow, as a successfully Hollywood director, knows her audience, and in Detroit she took advantage of my ignorance to overwhelm my senses, and make me shut down my ability to think critically. Apparently, the Algiers Motel affair, where a group of Detroit policemen took two white women and a group of black men hostage, is based on a real incident. I haven’t a clue about how faithful screenwriter Mark Boal was to the source material, but I soon accepted it at face value. Boal also plays to the left’s natural hostility towards cops. Most of the black people in Detroit are either faceless rioters or innocent victims. Most of the police officers and outright Nazis. If the police officers unions protested Bruce Springsteen’s American Skin, it makes me wonder why they aren’t out in the streets over Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. But perhaps I shouldn’t. The ringleaders of the police torturers in Detroit is so viciously racist and over the top that he can probably be explained by the “bad apple” theory of accountability. Nevetheless, as I was watching the film, it felt subversive and rebellious.
After I left the movie theater and regained my sense of critical thought, I began to wonder why, as much as I enjoyed seeing cops portrayed as monsters, I felt so shitty. Detroit is long, almost two and a half hours, and it feels longer. I could hardly believe it was still light when I got outside. Bigelow also uses a cheap Hollywood trick, common these days among blockbusters. She invites us to mistake bad writing for complexity. She fools us into thinking that many badly developed characters with superficially interesting story lines equals complex realism. But then she funnels everything into one bad, overplayed piece of torture porn. All through Detroit I kept wondering what it reminded me of. Then it hit me. I’ve never been much of a fan of The Walking Dead. After I joined the bandwagon and watched a few episodes of Season 1, I quickly got bored and drifted away. I am familiar, however, with the infamous scene where Negan smashes in Glenn’s skull with a baseball bat and laughs after his eye pops out of his head.
Now try to imagine watching that for two hours. Only in Detroit, it’s even worse. At least in The Walking Dead, Negan’s victims show a few signs of rebellion and solidarity. In Detroit, the black hostages are either passive victims, or, as in the case of John Boyega’s armed security guard Melvin Dismukes, active collaborators. I suppose what made Point Break such an entertaining film was how Bigelow naturally likes cops, soldiers, and sociopaths, and is most comfortable on the thin line where they all meet. In a comic movie staring Patrick Swayze, Keanu Reeves, and Gary Busey, it works. In semi-official CIA propaganda like Zero Dark Thirty, it falls flat. In a transparent attempt to win back her credibility with the left by winning over black audiences, it becomes embarrassing and exploitative.
So where does Bigelow fall on the “was Detroit a riot or a rebellion” spectrum?
Kathryn Bigelow is clearly in the “it was a riot” camp. The only real act of rebellion in the whole film by an individual black character — a drunk who fires a starter pistol at a group of National Guardsmen — is not only portrayed as stupid and pointless. It’s what leads to the hostage situation in the first place. What Detroit really needed was a black version of Bodhi, the character in Point Break played by Patrick Swayze who was somewhere between a charismatic rebel and a sociopath. Instead, she channels all of her deepest subconscious sympathies into Philip Krauss, the viciously racist homicidal maniac played by Will Poulter. Bigelow does, it must be admitted, portray the cops as “devils” — they’re much worse than simply “pigs” — but, to paraphrase William Blake on John Milton, she’s the true poet of torture and police repression. She’s of the party of uniformed mass murderers and serial killers without knowing it.