Detroit is not a movie

"Detroit" is a case study of the limits of the white gaze.

Published August 12, 2017 7:29PM (EDT)

Detroit (Annapurna Pictures)
Detroit (Annapurna Pictures)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet


Are you thinking of seeing Kathryn Bigelow’s movie "Detroit?" Don’t.

Read John Hersey’s book "The Algiers Motel Incident" instead. It is one of the most remarkable books about race ever written by a white man. And it’s as accurate an account of the massacre at the Algiers Motel as currently exists.

Oh, never mind. By all means, see the movie if the marketing campaign has persuaded you it’s the kind of entertainment you like. But please don’t think you are going to gain any deep insight into what happened in Detroit in 1967. Or what’s happening now. Or most importantly what you could do to reduce the destructive grip of white power on our society going forward.

Detroit, the movie version of the torture and brutal killing of teenagers Carl Cooper, Aubrey Pollard and Fred Temple in 1967, will not engender any significant criticism from the so-called alt-right or any other division of the white power structure. Neither have any previous Bigelow movies. That’s because they reinforce the prevailing white way of thinking about the perpetual U.S. wars on people of color both foreign and domestic.

Depicting long past brutal behavior by bad-apple cops toward African Americans is not something that rocks the boat. As with all white supremacist structures and behaviors, many whites actively support such behavior and the rest passively accept it. Yes, there are whites who oppose white supremacy, but thus far their efforts have yet to make much difference with regard to policing (or most other racial disparities). If you don’t believe me, ask Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin or Philando Castile.

At the risk of contradicting myself, there is a good reason to see the movie. How so? Approach it as a case study of the intrinsic limits of the white gaze, combined with the manipulation of facts for political and Hollywood marketing purposes.

Start with the title, "Detroit," which Kathryn Bigelow has said was chosen for marketing reasons. Exactly. Once again an entire city is reduced to a set of negative associations.

That aside, the film does offer a very “teachable” two hours and 23 minutes of perspective about the white way of thinking. Let’s start with the single most important creative license reconstruction in the movie.

Following a long multi-layered prelude that has both strong and weak points, we get to the meat of the story. We have met most of the characters inside the Algiers Motel. We see one of the three teenagers who will come to be massacred playing with a starter pistol. He playfully pretends to shoot one of the other teens who goes along and plays dead to momentarily shock the others present, including two young white women.

Shortly thereafter he again shoots the starter pistol several times in the direction of some of the police and troops who are all around the motel. This scene is critical to establishing a premise that the cops were justified in searching for “snipers.”

Here’s the problem: It has never been definitely established that there was a starter pistol. No starter pistol was found at the scene. Could the police have disappeared it? Perhaps. Their reasoning would have been that it undermined their story that they had been shot at.

But that’s not the only issue. The notion that there were any snipers who fired at anyone during the rebellion is itself likely an urban myth. No one was ever charged or tried for being a sniper. Nevertheless, sniper claims provided a dramatic rationale during the ’67 uprising as justification for the rampant killing, wounding, beating and arrest of black people. It is a trope that was widely reported by the media and the police at that time and ever since.

Who killed who?

Of the official death toll of 43 killed, no one disputes that Jerome Olshove, the lone Detroit police officer who died, and National Guardsman Larry Post were killed by friendly fire. Various anecdotal accounts of medical treatment for government personnel wounded by gunshots are also consistent with friendly fire.

It is also unchallenged that four-year-old Tonya Blanding was killed by a 50-caliber machine gun bullet fired by the National Guard because a cigarette lighter flame led the Guard to strafe the building.

Historian Danielle McGuire is writing a new book about the Algiers Motel murders. According to her research, the National Guard alone fired as many as 155,000 rounds of ammunition in five days.

All of this matters to the politics of the movie because the sniper framing provides a justification for fearful and amped up police engaging with those in the Algiers. It makes what they did an understandable if tragic, “overreaction” by bad apple cops.

To its credit, the movie takes some pains to establish the historical context of the great migration of African Americans from the South to northern cities like Detroit. It does not, however, establish any history for the evolution from the slave patrols and slave catchers of the past to urban policing circa 1967 and 2017.

Nor does it provide the backstory of the long history of the top-to-bottom Detroit police department association with the Black Legion and the KKK. The late George Edwards was a liberal who stepped down from the Michigan Supreme Court in the mid-1960s to change the Department’s racist culture as Detroit police commissioner in the Jerome Cavanagh administration. He had already quit in despair before 1967.

Along with the starter pistol misrepresentation, other elements of the Detroit movie subtly serve to cast doubt on the innocence of the victims. For example, in appearance and other ways, the movie represents the victims more as young adults than as teenagers. Two recent articles do an excellent job of explaining this core component of the white gaze.

Robin Bernstein, professor of African-American studies at Harvard, explains in the New York Times, “To many people, black boys seem older than they are: In one study, people overestimated their ages by 4.5 years. This contributes to a false perception that black boys are less childlike than white boys.”

AlterNet writer Kali Holloway makes similar points about this disparity in a recent article noting the deference sought for the 37-year-old “good boy” Donald Trump Jr., and the 40-year-old baby-faced Jared Kushner. Holloway notes that Don Jr. and Kushner "benefit from the lifelong presumption of white innocence this racist society confers on them.”

In the same vein, a scene in the film portrays a bee-fueled pool party taking place at the Algiers at the height of the rebellion. Yet autopsies proved that neither Cooper, Pollard nor Temple had any alcohol or drugs in their systems.

Also revealing: for all the attention paid to the movie’s 40-minute torture scene, often cited as proof of how hard-hitting and truthful the movie is, the abuse is actually sanitized. Bigelow, as well as some of the actors and commenters on the film have addressed this as not wanting to “exploit black trauma.”

Huh? Is that conceding that for some white movie viewers, the more onscreen brutality toward blacks the better? And so the filmmakers get credit for not pandering to them. Or what?

Equally important, contrary to the film portrayal, one of the leading characters in the film, Melvin Dismukes, an African-American security guard, participated with the police in the beatings as opposed to being the “peacemaker” presented in the film.

The movie also depicts some white police officers who were hostile to the bad white cops. One even calls one of them a racist.

There were a handful of good Detroit cops back in the day. I knew some of them personally. But those scenes in the film are not credible. At best such exchanges would be from a different place and time. But they do support the “bad cops out of control” perspective.

There are also scenes that portray members of the notoriously racist Michigan State Police and the National Guard as seemingly disapproving of the Detroit cops' behavior, but withdrawing from the Algiers rather than intervening to restrain them.

Which brings us back to the centuries' long story of whites who actively enforce white supremacy and those who are passive enablers.

So, you may say, don’t be naïve: what can you expect from Hollywood? More, that’s what. If you want to see a better example of racial truth from a Hollywood director, watch "13th" by Ava DuVernay. It’s available on Netflix.

By Frank Joyce

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