CITY PRESS REVIEW: White director, black pain

A scene in Detroit. (Screengrab: YouTube/Moviefone)
A scene in Detroit. (Screengrab: YouTube/Moviefone)

City Press movie review: Detroit

Johannesburg - Members of the media who went to the press screening of Detroit about a month ago came out rattled, some in tears, others hugging their colleagues. I arrived at the office afterwards declaring it a five-star film and the “movie of the year”.

The film review process is an interesting one, though. Sometimes, after the visceral effects of the production simmer down, you find yourself feeling differently about what you’ve seen.

With masterpieces such as The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty under her belt, Kathryn Bigelow is behind this retelling of a case of extreme police brutality that occurred during the 1967 Detroit riots in the US. Dubbed the Algiers Motel incident, it saw a group of white policemen terrorise a group of guests (10 black men and two white women), after a report that there was a gunman in the building. By the end of the night, three unarmed men were dead and others had been brutally beaten.

While the film – in typical Bigelow style – is relentlessly tense throughout, with 30 claustrophobic minutes taking place in only two rooms of the motel, it’s the question of what Bigelow is trying to say here that’s unclear.

If Detroit is out to illustrate that the US has a race problem, then yes, I suppose it succeeds. But in a Donald Trump and an alt-right Charlottesville era, that fact is clear. The question is whether we really needed a white director to tell us that racism is bad.

When Vanity Fair asked Bigelow if she thought she was the ideal director to tell the story, she answered: “No. However, I’m able to tell this story.”

But, often, the problem with white directors taking on black stories is the way they deal with black pain. As City Press writer Charl Blignaut pointed out in his review of the local film Shepherds and Butchers, the brutality and torture of black bodies is too often used to teach lessons that are only really valuable to white people. For a black audience, who already fully know the horror of racism, these scenes are at best redundant and, at worst, traumatising.

The same can be said of Detroit. As Huffington Post writer Zeba Blay said: “Detroit is a movie for white people. For some white viewers, Bigelow’s film may invoke horror, even righteous anger. But with a white audience so firmly at its core, the images of violence in the film – designed to be visceral; in your face; to expose and inspire outrage and disbelief – inspire nothing in me but pessimism and spiritual exhaustion. The violence isn’t shocking. It’s just sadly familiar, and that isn’t interesting or illuminating to me as a black viewer in 2017.”

Though there’s still plenty in the film that should be lauded – the saturated and claustrophobic cinematography, and potent performances from most of the cast, for instance – it’s a film that should be watched with a disclaimer. As a white viewer, Detroit did everything Blay predicted it would, but some black viewers might feel differently.

Read Channel24's review of Detroit here.