Saturday, July 29, 2017

In Detroit: Zero Dark 2017, White Blindness Run Amok

Will Poulter (left) and Anthony Mackie in Kathryn Bigelow's drama "Detroit".
  Annapurna Pictures

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Saturday, July 29, 2017

Bottles fly, tempers flare and fires burn as Black rebellions against white supremacy, racism and racial injustice are what Kathryn Bigelow chronicles well in "Detroit", about the real-life Detroit police assault and invasion of the Algiers Motel in which white police officers killed three Black boys in 1967.  Action musculature and extended powerful sequences forming separate movies is never Ms. Bigelow's stumbling block in this epic but blindness and narrowness of scope are. 

In clinically re-enacting documentary style the racist climate of a segregated city with an overwhelmingly white oppressive police force "Detroit" wears blinders in the context of rebellions exploding across the entire U.S.  There is a perplexing children's coloring book prologue that feels dropped in from outer space before a hard shift to the grit, smells, sweat and blood of a racial tinderbox exploded by centuries of racial discrimination.  Ms. Bigelow, such a crisp director, has difficulty finding an entry point in "Detroit", so archival footage fills a void where something more clinical and illustrative (a visual chronicle of the cause of racial uprisings in America) should have.

What Ms. Bigelow nails is the differing forms, shape-shifts and layers of white supremacy.  We see the effect this systemic power and oppression has on Black male youth and their differing reactions (mostly passive or impotent) to the onslaught against them.  There's a strange disconnect between the 12th Street rebellion in Detroit, where property was the biggest target, and the contrasting microcosm (or more accurately macrocosm) of state-sanctioned police violence meted out against Black people by Detroit's non-finest and Lyndon Johnson's National Guard.

Mark Boal's screenplay gets white male racist psyche, paranoia, irrationality, assumption, stereotyping, zenophobia and schizophrenia down to a T.  There's sustained tension in a major 30-minute sequence that is especially harrowing and tortuous.  White male violence, inadequacy, insecurity and fear command a confined space in unflinchingly brutal ways.  We are as much hostages as those victimized.  Ms. Bigelow seems to make the house this ordeal transpires in three times as small as it is, via tight shots and quick edits.  We also glimpse the damage white supremacy and institutionalized power does to one white cop.

Several Black male characters' lives are altered forever (a singer on the cusp of the big time, his bodyguard, and a security guard.)

The big casualty of "Detroit" though, is the Sandra Bland of 2015 erasure of Black women in effect 50 years earlier.  It's a back-to-the-future type of white blindness - a crude Ralph Ellison invisibility of Black women in a section of a predominantly-Black city -- whether or not connected to actual events of the Algiers - that's as troubling as the events themselves.  There's a myth-making created in Black women's general absence from "Detroit" that is as injurious and dangerous as the myth-making of the presence of white goody-goody FBI agents as friends to Black people in "Mississippi Burning".  It is difficult to fathom a real-life events film in a white American neighborhood or city without either having at least one principal white male or white female character in it, regardless of the actual events and their accuracy. 

And this is what baffled and irked me most about "Detroit", which possesses a claustrophobic atmopshere, one that truncates and disempowers Black young men, their dignity, masculinity and highlights a strange alienation from Black women.  (By contrast Black young males lust after young white females in numerous early scenes.)  The waters are further muddied by a soft-spoken do-gooder security guard Dismukes (John Boyega) who knows right from wrong but acquieces to white male violence to try and assimilate into white hieracrhy.  Implicitly he wants to be deputized to police officer.  It's a role Dismukes elects to play but like Frankenstein the role mutates and overtakes him.  He becomes a spook, a gatekeeper and enabler of white supremacy and its violence.  He receives lukewarm thanks from one guilty white cohort for playing the role.  Dismukes's motto is "survive the night," something he quietly urges a Black male teenager to do yet is desperately trying to do himself.

It is this wear and tear of oppression on Dismukes and his uneasy coexistence with it that is the film's cross to bear.  Dismukes is reminded that his badge and uniform don't insulate him though he assiduously does the bidding of deadly white superiors.  Dismukes is treated as the rest, asked by white colleagues about fellow Blacks and their end point of rebellion.  "How would I know?," he replies.  Dismukes is the film's most troubling character, and I suspect Ms. Bigelow placed him front and center as its most important one.  Mr. Boyega's security guard has swallowed a lot of guilt in his role-play, such that he has to expel that guilt before it chokes him.  Even so, there is a lack of socio-political contextualisation to the events in "Detroit", particularly in the rebellion sequences in contrast to the Black rebellion in Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing".

What gives "Detroit" a fair amount of cover though -- present-day oppression of Black people isn't alluded to as a connective tissue to 1967 and should have been, rather than the film's curious prologue created by Henry Louis Gates Jr. -- is it takes on a specific though unclear event where characters' "Rashomon" perspectives make dramatic license palatable.  No matter how murky, dead Black bodies are what are left on America's bloody canvas.  The mistake however, is that "Detroit" sometimes tries to fill in gaps about the who-shot-firsts of onscreen violence and oppression, the same gaps we were left to fill in recent killings (not caught on video) of Black teenagers Michael Brown, 18 (2014), Renisha McBride, 18 (killed by a white man in a Detroit suburb in 2013) and Trayvon Martin, 17 (2012).  There isn't space for us the viewer in "Detroit" to process a racial Rohrshach test of verification or lies.  We are explicitly fed almost all the ingredients and any complexities.  As a result "Detroit" as a film challenges us less intellectually than viscerally. 

The visceral reaction to police executions we see all-too often on video today (of unarmed Black men like Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Eric Garner and Samuel Dubose, among the most recently publicized) are fully invited in "Detroit".  Powerless to stop these events as they unfold (Mr. Castile's death was live-streamed on Facebook), "Detroit" forces us, somewhat Michael Haneke-style, to sit, endure and reckon with our own feelings, inaction and complicity with the very state-sanctioned violence our tax dollars pay for.  We are as guilty as the film's criminal white cops in this futile, fraught war zone of militarized mayhem and death via occupying army.

Most of all, Mr. Boyega's Dismukes is us -- watching and enabling the relentless abuse in "Compliance" or the endless loop of real video assassinations.  We are desensitized and inert.  We don't walk away.  We watch helplessly or with dark, basest desires.  Today these endless loops form a bizarre fascination, an indictment of intransigence or a rallying call for justice in an unjust country and system.  The two white females caught in the crosshairs of the white male state violence of 1967 may have been the Justine Damond of today had things escalated further for them.  ("What, you think that because you're white you won't I won't kill you too?," one white cop threatens.)

"Detroit" makes its white police officers' actions appear more nuanced while some of its Black characters (including those seen looting early on) are drawn from monolithic or one-dimensional straits.  Lesser context is afforded them.  (A singer in "The Dramatics" is a core character but the sight of a Black man singing for his big Motown moment seems too convenient and connective touchstone of comfort for white audiences, even if summoned from real events.)  An effort however, is made to balance out white cops -- some as do-gooders or dogged interrogators, with clear rule changes based on the race of the interrogated.  In a film that takes painstaking care in capturing its institutionalized and entrenched oppressions of Black men (and to a lesser extent white women) it is bizarre that the film's white male police detectives would be somehow resistant to the same racist and systemic empowerment and entrenchment that their subordinates carried out. 

As I watched spellbound at times I often asked myself who "Detroit" is for.  Is it for America collectively?  Is it a lesson?  Is it for Black America?  Is it for white America?  (On the surface "Detroit" is a touchstone for America in its present day, still with 241-year-lessons unlearned.)  Yet with each passing scene I often found myself answering, "the latter."  Even with the film's searing and unblinking violence by white cops comes comforting reassurances of the goodness of some members of an oppressive occupying force for the film's white audience (two white male cops aid a Black youth, and the film's music gets gooey and sobering.)  It is a reauthorizing of the cultural myth of the veracity of (white) police officers, one that America has been spoonfed with via television and movies ad infinitum.

The Ferguson of 2014 and the police killing onslaught of 2017 is well and truly alive in "Detroit".  Obviously nothing has changed in 50-plus years in the U.S. where police killings of Black men and women are concerned but the line-blurring and Ms. Bigelow's recurring themes of testifying, Black expression, validation and recollection constantly clash with presumptions of accuracy in whiteness.  "Detroit" never plays things easy yet doesn't go as deep or as all-encompassing as it should.  For all of Ms. Bigelow's passion, prowess and potency as a director, there's a sense that "Detroit" has a few vital missing heartbeats its near-three-hour length would have justified. 

Also with: Jacob Latimore, Will Poulter, Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith, Laz Alonso, John Krasinski, Jason Mitchell, Jennifer Ehle.

"Detroit" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for strong language and pervasive violence.  The film's running time is two hours and 23 minutes.

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