Detroit begins with the animation of painter Jacob Lawrence’s famous migration series One-Way Ticket, a work that depicts the movement of black Americans en masse from the South to the North in the early 20th century, in what would later become known as the Great Migration. In a few minutes, the film attempts to contextualize the atmosphere of its setting — a turbulent, racially divided 1967 Detroit — with a decades-long, if not centuries-long, prologue. The introduction ends with the message "Change had to come," before transitioning to a scene of police loudly and forcefully storming into an unlicensed black club. As the police pull the clubgoers out onto the street, the community responds by jeering and throwing bottles at the men in blue, representations of their nemesis — America’s institutional racism — in the flesh.
That visceral reaction spurred the events of that infamous Detroit summer, but what the film never shows are the root causes, which had been long ingrained in the city's culture. While a wave of change was sweeping over the US during the mid- to late '60s — which led to unrest across many cities and towns — the change happening in Detroit was particularly tumultuous. The combination of high unemployment, poverty, and police brutality in the immensely segregated city led to a simmering fury, which was experienced most acutely by its black citizens. By 1967, the city was ripe for riot and rebellion.
The film focuses on a familiar American event — police brutality — which led to the cruel deaths of three young black men, and the gruesome torture of seven other black men and two white women at the hands of Detroit police officers in late July 1967 at the Algiers Motel. This narrative however, cannot be relegated solely to history: Detroit could have easily been Ferguson, centering on the 2014 death of Michael Brown; or Baltimore, about Freddie Gray's 2015 killing; or St. Paul, the story of Philando Castille, who was shot last year.
Given how the past that Detroit explores so easily parallels the present, it is curious then that director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal chose to open the film with “change had to come,” as if to insinuate that after these events, it did. But for many black Americans, Detroit is not just history — it’s a reminder of the current realities of being black in the US, and it highlights the lack of transformational change from one generation to the next. Because of this lack progress, the question of who the film is for is important: Who is its intended audience, and who is it being marketed to? Many black people are already hyperaware of police brutality, but they may feel obligated to watch a film like Detroit where they are seen, only because it happens so rarely. And for those who are far removed from events like Detroit, how are the filmmakers trying to reach them to teach them this history?
Detroit’s contemporary relevance is not lost on Bigelow, who told the New York Times she received the story from Boal around the same time a grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who killed Michael Brown. The director said she had “an extremely emotional reaction to the constant recurrence of these events.” In an op-ed for Vulture, Boal wrote: "I don’t have anything prescriptive to say about racism in America, only the sorrowful and perhaps obvious observation that the lessons learned 50 years ago seemed to have been forgotten in the wake of continuing injustices in Ferguson, Baltimore, Baton Rouge, and so many other cities. And while it is indeed an interesting and vital question to ask how much has changed since the 1960s between African-American communities and the police forces that putatively serve them, I leave that discussion to professionals in race and police reform.” (Bigelow and Boal were not made available to be interviewed by BuzzFeed News.)
John Boyega — who portrays Melvin Dismukes in Detroit, a security guard who gets caught in the chaos at the motel — also agrees with Boal that change has come slowly. Boyega told BuzzFeed News that the movie is “art, but it's also a take on a conversation that we're unfortunately still having 50 years down the line.”
Boyega’s character is difficult to evaluate — he represents the dilemma of what it means to “do the right thing” under difficult circumstances. He wanders into the Algiers Motel when he hears shots fired and attempts to position himself between the police officers (as a security guard himself) and the young black men being interrogated and beaten by them (as a young black man himself). When he's alone with one of the black men, he urges him to obey the officer’s orders. "I need you to survive the night," Dismukes tells him, believing that working with the officers might save them. Because like all the young black men in the motel, Dismukes too just wants to survive the night. But later, like the white officers, Dismukes is also accused of murder and torture, proving that complying with authority is not a guarantee of protection by it — at least not when you’re black.
Michael Eric Dyson, an academic and author who consulted on the film, acknowledges that the past uniquely transcends the present when it comes to black American history. And that's particularly true with police brutality, which has always existed along the color line of the US, where lives are defined by the shades of one's skin and those who are the victims tend to share the same one. “The ever present prospect of black vulnerability in our interactions with the streets remind us that what you're going to dispel [in the film] is really not only relevant as a historical document but as an ongoing exercise of social conscience and commentary on our contemporary beliefs,” he told BuzzFeed News in a recent interview.
Dyson’s comments seem to take for granted that a viewer of any color would be open to the idea that black Americans have a deep fear of the police and other forms of institutionalized racism. That fear is captured in how Bigelow shot Detroit — intimately, demanding that the audience partake in the cries and prayers, the bullets and the bloodshed — and in the way the black actors portrayed Boal’s script. But the conversation of police brutality often accompanies an “I feared for my life” rhetoric that's used to justify slain black victims, overestimating the empathy of the nonblack viewer.
Still, a question that lingers against the backdrop of America’s racial history is whether the fundamental choice to tell a historical story of police brutality rather than a recent one relieves its potential white audience (unlike its black audience) from personal implication in the film. That point is further emphasized by the character of Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), the leading police officer in Detroit, who is so irredeemable that he can only be described as the personification of white supremacy in uniform. But Krauss — a composite character of the real police officers involved in the Algiers incident — represents racism in such extreme form that it may nullify less intense, more subtle, patrons of police brutality and other racists, in and out of uniform.
The depiction of Krauss and his colleagues' extreme violence in the motel is also so harrowing that some have questioned its justification. Danielle Young of The Root wrote about her reasons for stepping out of the film, and Very Smart Brothas contributor Dustin Seibert called the film’s violence a “borderline torture-porn degree of brutality.” The violence in Detroit is overwhelming, yes, but it is not gratuitous — it's representative, which makes it difficult for black people in particular to watch.
Boyega admitted to BuzzFeed News that the movie “requires a huge emotional payment from its audience," adding, "I just feel like that's perspective, that's real life.” Perhaps the “real life” nature of it all makes Detroit effective, but also potentially traumatizing. A Detroit mother of three boys, Gail Perry-Mason, told the Detroit Free Press she left in the middle of the film's world premiere last month. "I just came out here and bawled," she said in the lobby, tissue in hand. "What happened in 1967, and what happens today, it's real. … Those could be my sons."
That a white filmmaker and a white screenwriter collaborated to portray such a horrifying, spectacular event has inevitably led some to question about their right to do so. Bigelow told the New York Times she interrogated herself too. “I’m white, am I the right person to do it?” she recalled thinking. But she ultimately decided that “to do nothing was not an answer.” Boal told Vulture that he was so moved by the story of Larry Reed (Algee Smith), a promising singer in The Dramatics who survived the night at the Algiers, that he felt a responsibility to tell it. But the portrayal of black pain by nonblack people comes with initial distrust by black Americans, and a well-made film like Detroit can still leave black viewers dissatisfied, like critic Angelica Jade Bastién, who, in a review of the film, wrote that Detroit's white creatives did not understand “the weight of the images they hone in on with an unflinching gaze.”
But no critique, conversation, or question prompted by the film is as significant as "Who is Detroit for?"
Bigelow alluded to that question when she told the New York Times that she hopes the film “either generates a conversation, begins to generate a conversation and/or encourages more stories like this to come forward.” It’s a statement as diplomatic as Boyega’s own to BuzzFeed News: “I think the film is for all of us.”
Yet, by screening Detroit in the Motor City, it’s clear the filmmakers want those who have experienced the history, perhaps even those who are products of the history, and who relive this history in the present, to also witness its retelling.
By virtue of their skin, black people in the US are no strangers to police brutality or the conversations about race that surround it. Detroit might be about black people, but it can hardly be said to be teaching black people anything wholly new. It doesn’t provide any catharsis or relief, which makes the narrative genuine for all of its viewers, but especially sobering for its black viewers. Certainly, the retelling of history for its own sake has value, but black history recounted as it is in Detroit appears to do just that: depict a familiar tale to black people, packaged as a moment in history for everyone else, so that it's still possible to distance oneself from the Detroits we witness today.
Yet the people who would most benefit from seeing Detroit are those who deem police brutality a one-off event rather than an institutional predicament, who do not see the egregious error in countering “black lives matter” with “all lives matter,” who are wont to deny one of the country’s most lasting and continual original sins in racism. And those people, I suspect, will not see this film. BuzzFeed News asked Detroit distributor Annapurna Pictures to provide box office data about its audience demographics since the film opened in limited release on July 28, but did not receive it.
On that same limited release day, President Trump joked about roughing up suspects in a room full of law enforcement officials, leading Detroit producer Megan Ellison to tweet a video of the president's words over footage from the film. "I invite you to see our movie DETROIT," she tweeted at him. "It's time to change the conversation." Trump did not respond to the tweet, and a representative for Annapurna told BuzzFeed News that they made a formal attempt to invite the president and his administration to screen Detroit. They have not heard back from the White House.
Detroit doesn't indicate how exactly, as Ellison suggests, to change the conversation, though. Its last scenes center on Reed, who became disillusioned with the prospect of returning to The Dramatics; he was unable to justify singing and performing for the enjoyment of white people after the trauma he experienced. Instead, he sought comfort in a black church choir. It's unintentionally telling of the outcome of the film: Detroit too will likely end up being seen by people who are already aware of police brutality, and the complexities and history that come with it. In that way, the film is also likely to be received by its own metaphorical church choir, achieving little more than preaching to its members.
Bim Adewunmi contributed reporting to this story.