“Race relations” are interpersonal relationships that carry all the baggage of everyone involved. This important and divisive topic cannot be discussed in term such as, “Oh he’s black so he’s going to believe this and behave that way,” or “She’s white, so this must be the case.” Traditionally, we call such statements what they are: overgeneralizations and stereotypes.
Sadly, it seems modern public discourse has devolved into this mindset as of late, especially when discussing the relationships between law enforcement and African-Americans. Not so with writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow in their recent film “Detroit.” Instead of portraying the Detroit race riots of 1967 as the racist, predominantly white police force against the victimized black community of that era, Boal and Bigelow endeavor to take a more honest approach.
The movie centers on the seizure of the Algiers Hotel and annex by a handful of Detroit police and National Guard troops during the riots. The small brigade of officers and troops begins taking what they perceive to be sniper fire from the nearby hotel. In reality, one of the young black men who lives in the annex is playing an ill-fated prank.
“Carl Cooper” (Jason Mitchell) has a “starter pistol”—a very loud, fake gun used to begin track races. Carl likes to play jokes with his starter pistol. Out of frustration with the police presence, he takes the pistol and fires off several rounds, well in earshot of the officers and troops. Already on edge from riots’ intensity, the police and troops return fire with real bullets and seize the building. Upon entering the foyer of the annex, Officer Krauss (Will Poulter) encounters Carl, immediately guns him down, and plants a knife next to his body to give the illusion that Krauss had been attacked.
And so the grisly night begins.
The Collateral Damage of Two Fools
It begins because one frustrated individual decided to deal with his frustration stupidly. It begins because one racist cop happened to be on the scene. It’s not a “black and white” thing. It’s two individuals who have chosen to hate each other coming face to face. Everyone within their immediate vicinity will reap the whirlwind of their hatred.
What ensues is a night of beatings and torture. It results in a police officer who has never discharged his firearm before killing another man in cold blood. The stupidity of one man and psychotic racism of another show us the fear and hopelessness of all involved.
Already, Boal and Bigelow highlight none of this ever begins as a “black versus white” thing. To be sure, it will turn into that, but it starts with two individuals deciding to hate each other because each fears the other’s skin color. The film does well to demonstrate that, without these two individuals, the outcome would have been very different. However, the movie also finds culpable all who fall prey to the storm of hate these two initiate.
The local African-American reaction to this situation is destroying their own businesses and homes. A striking scene portrays several black men throwing rocks at white firefighters who are attempting to control fires rioters have set. The fear of the largely white police force is certainly evident in how they respond to and interact with individual blacks. The black men respond by hating all things “white.”
Bitterness Helps Nobody
Perhaps one of the most telling sub-plots of the film is that, after all is said and done, “Larry Reed” (Algee Smith), forgoes fame and fortune in the Motown record scene and settles for poverty and obscurity, despite having unparalleled vocal talent, because “White people listen to this music.” Because of his ordeal at the Algiers hotel that fateful night, he chooses to hold hate for all whites, even if that means he must suffer. He refuses to be a part of anything that will give one once of pleasure to any white person. Reed forgoes all of his dreams because two men—one black and one white—decided to be stupid one day.
We see again that this whole conflict is highly personal and individual. The truth is very, very complicated. That’s because we are all complex individuals who cannot be easily categorized and defined by something as irrelevant as our skin color.
Now, amid much darkness in this film, there is light. First, the movie gives us white heroes. It’s subtle, but it’s there. Aside from Krauss and his blindly loyal minions, each white person in the film is earnestly trying to solve the problem as best he knows how. Besides Krauss, Boal and Bigelow portray every other white person as trying to help. Sadly, sometimes this is people simply turning a blind eye, but at least choosing not to participate in the problem. Many times it is people who are white trying to actively love and serve their neighbors in their community.
We also have the genuine hero of the docudrama, Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega). Melvin is a part-time armed security guard. In one particularly moving scene, Dismukes is shown serving coffee to the white National Guard soldiers posted near to him in an act of peace and unity. Throughout the ordeal at the Algiers, Melvin constantly tries to minimize suffering and loss of life. He does not do this out of cowardice or capitulation to the racist Krauss, but out of a heart of courage. Again, here is another individual the filmmakers depict as defying the stereotype and the status quo.
Have We Learned From This Past?
Despite these glimmers of light, the film as in real life ends as it did—with three racist cops evading justice and all the bitterness and polarization that ensues. It was a very dark time in our recent history. It gives us pause to consider how much we have progressed since 1967. Are we just as racist and divided and barbaric as we were in Detroit, given recent events like Ferguson, Charlottesville, and Baltimore? Or have we made progress?
The biggest challenge the movie brings to us is the charge against our identity politics. “Well he’s white, so…” or “She’s black, so…” No. “He” is an individual. So is “she.” Just like us. That is what the film wants us to know. It wants us to know that individuals, not “identity groups,” do what’s right and, in the case of Detroit circa 1967, do what’s wrong.
That terrible year in what was then the nation’s fifth-largest city, two men participated in tearing that once wonderful community to shreds. Those two men and individuals like them destroyed a city that year, and it has never recovered. It wasn’t “white cops” who did it. It wasn’t “black thugs.” It was complicated and complex individuals who did that in concert.
“Detroit’s” makers imply that if you’re tempted to blame “those dirty blacks” or the “cracker cops,” both perceptions are wrong and evil. If we get right down to it, one man’s hatred and racism caused the Algiers incident, and that was Phillip Krauss. Did others fall prey to mob mentality? Yes, they did. But one man, not an entire class of men, did evil that night.
Check Yourself Before We Wreck Ourselves
This film caused me to ask myself, “Do I hold grudges and hatred for a group because that group is really completely evil, or is there something else going on there?” Certainly groups like the National Socialist Party or the Klu Klux Klan deserve absolute opposition, but how often do I have a single encounter with a person of a particular group then judge the entire group based on that one person’s actions? It gives a man cause to reevaluate his prejudices, to be sure.
I took in this film with my lovely wife, Jennifer. As we exited the theater, I looked at her and she was visibly exhausted. I asked, “You okay, babe?”
“Yeah,” she answered, but then continued, “It’s just that nobody won.”
It’s just that nobody won.
“Detroit” shows us that nobody wins when we fall prey to mob mentality and identity politics; when we judge an entire group based on the actions of just a few. Krauss was, no question, the epitome of evil. Carl was stupid and angry. Larry was unforgiving. Officer Roberts (Austin Hébert) was a coward—then a courageous hero.
The matter is complicated. It is as complex as each of us is, and it is never as simple as “us” versus “them.” When we reduce it to “us” versus “them” instead of “Krauss” and “Carl” and “Larry,” nobody wins. Perhaps we could begin again and at least start with our fellow man as we meet each person face to face, forgiving the past and looking toward a better future. This is what “Detroit” would teach us.