“You made a mistake. But it was just one mistake in one moment. Don’t let that moment define the rest of your life.”
Those were the words of advice from one Detroit police officer guilty of murdering an unarmed black person to another officer guilty of the same. Of course in their world one momentary lapse in judgement is just that. A mistake. You get another chance at the rest of your life.
It helps to know that as officers of the law you get quid pro quo in court. After all, you’re just doing your job.
In another world, the one everyone else and particularly people of color live in, one mistake sends you to prison no questions asked. One moment does define the rest of your life. There are no such things as momentary judgement errors. White officers’ mistakes are black suspects’ heinous crimes. For people of color everywhere there is almost never a second chance or even a decent first one. There is no quid pro quo in court. Only persona non grata.
Detroit, the latest installment from Academy award winning director Kathryn Bigelow slams home racial and social messages of today against the backdrop of the 1967 Detroit riots. The bulk of the film depicts an incident that took place in the Algiers Motel, where a group of black men and two white women are essentially held hostage by brutal white police. The forced interrogation/hostage situation is precipitated by a group of corrupt, violent officers who believe a sniper fired on National Guardsman from an Algiers Motel window.
“Get off the streets. Go home,” the police loudspeakers scream enforcing a curfew during the riots. But the people of color out on the street are already home. It is only the militarized, invading, occupying police force who are outside of their own community.
Detroit’s fraught, frenetic beginning shows the chicken and egg nature of riots and the methods used to suppress them.
The police say they’re just doing the job, keeping the public safe. But both in the film and in historical places like Watts and Ferguson, what the public really needs protection from is the officers themselves. Would there have been a demonstration to begin with if they hadn’t been there dehumanizing people? Would that demonstration have turned violent if they weren’t heavy handed with the demonstrators themselves?
As we see in the film, the police are out in full force quelling the unrest their own actions sparked in the first place. And things are getting out of hand.
We see a young white police officer, played excellently by Will Poulter, shoot a man running with looted groceries in the back with a shotgun. Just doing his job.
A little girl, maybe 6 or 7 years old, goes to a window to see what all the noise is about. The police see her flicker in the window, scream “sniper”, and blow her away with a high caliber insurgent. They didn’t look to see who it was and they didn’t care. She was in her home. They weren’t.
A black grocery store security guard, played by John Boyega, felt he knew the answer to all this unrest and violence: good-natured appeasement! Befriend the white national guardsman. Implore the restless blacks to just stop, go home and survive the night.
Boyega brings out the Dr. Ben Carson in all of us, presenting the white police and national guardsman in Detroit with a black face that’s non-threatening. Non-violent. Reassuring even. Certainly not scary like the rest of, well, them can be. Boyega’s character attempts to deescalate the situation by providing gifts of booze, cigarettes, coffee and a helping hand to the police and national guardsman who are brutalizing members of the community who share his same complexion.
“You’re a solid guy,” Poulter’s character says to him at one point after he has sincerely gone along with the police during their unspeakable acts in the Algiers Motel.
It is a far cry from Poulter telling every other black person in the film that they’re all probably criminals anyway. But, to him, Boyega’s character is a solid guy. Trustworthy even.
He’s not like the other ones.
One can understand this as part of the racist ideologies of Poulter’s character. The trouble is Boyega’s really believes it about himself as well. He’s the black klansman. He’s not like the other “boys”. He’s not of their ilk. He wants to all just get along. If we just keep our head down and behave we can survive the night. Just don’t speak out. Don’t rock the boat. Be smiling. Be gentle. Be non-threatening.
In the Black community there are words not fit to print for how Boyega’s character would be, well, characterized. But many would say that the smile-to-the-white-man’s face type of brothers all end up sold down the same river as everyone else.
This point is driven home with a sledgehammer when he finds himself in jail with the rest of the Blacks, falsely suspected of crimes we know he did not commit. Only then does he understand. He might be different than the rest of them in his own mind. But in Detroit, when push came to shove, to the White Establishment he was just another Black man ready to be locked up.
Detroit was equally harsh to the flip side of that coin. A young white woman, played by Hannah Murray, when asked what she’s doing at a Motel with all these Black guys, she replies, “Oh, were they black? I didn’t notice because I’m colorblind.”
The colorblind are in some ways just as chastened as the racist police by Bigelow. Algee Smith, who plays an aspiring Motown singer, wants to quit the music business. It’s all whites like Murray who listen to Motown records anyway. They’re the ones who come to the big auditoriums, who buy the records en masse.
Smith doesn’t want it anymore. He doesn’t want to sing and dance for them. Not after what he’s been through. Brutalized, held hostage, threatened, beaten at the hands of the police at the Algiers. It doesn’t matter to him that Motown is black owned. The money is white. He doesn’t want it.
In Detroit, the colorblind whites are given the same death as everyone else. Neither side respects them. The Whites wonder why they’d lower themselves to hang out with Blacks. The people of color just feel patronized by them.
Detroit gives no quarter to any issue of race in America. It is shot up close and personal. Blood, sweat, tears, cries, bullets, death, hopelessness. All of it is raw and naked in the hands of Bigelow.
While well-paced throughout with excellent use of stock footage, Detroit slows the pace the closer it gets to its conclusion. It lingers most tenderly with Smith’s character in the aftermath of the horrific Algiers Motel saga.
The gritty, up-close hard shots and violent tension melt away. All that is left is Smith’s soaring singing voice, gentle disposition and his grief. He’s too proud to re-join his group now that they’ve made the big time, even though all the members want him to. He’s been scarred to much to perform at the clubs where the whites dance to the Black music.
He’s a shell of himself but he still has his graceful voice. A voice that contains his dignity.
After all, for people of color everywhere, having a voice and preserving dignity is all one can usually pray to be left with.
Detroit, through all other traumas, leaves us with that.