A White Director, Police And Race in ‘Detroit’
This meant that when a little girl peeked through the blinds of an apartment to see what was going on, the grim outcome was inevitable.
“Sniper in the window!” a Guardsman yelled almost as quickly as he fired shots that all but obliterated the window.
The camera moves on from the smoky aftermath of this jarring moment in the director Kathryn Bigelow’s latest feature film, “Detroit.” What lingers, however, is the sense of racial terror that pulsed through this city in 1967 during one of America’s most infamous episodes of civil unrest.
Ms. Bigelow, the director of “Zero Dark Thirty,” is in her sweet spot when transforming real life into high art. But with “Detroit,” she had to wrestle with how far to push reality — how to convey the real-life horror of racism, without exploiting black trauma. “It’s really a question of how do you humanize and how do you bring to life a situation,” Ms. Bigelow said. “I suppose you use a personal judgment, I guess.”
Ms. Bigelow’s nonfictional judgment has earned her scorn in the past — most notably criticism that she gave false, misleading credit to the role that torture played in capturing Osama bin Laden.
Now with “Detroit,” this Oscarwinning filmmaker could be facing her most ambitious, and contentious, project to date. She is a white woman from Northern California telling a story of the black experience in civil rights era Detroit, which Ms. Bigelow said was not lost on her.
The movie focuses on a littleknown horror amid the five- day riot ( locals argue that “rebellion” is a more accurate term) that left 43 dead, nearly 1,200 injured and the city scarred. On the third night of the unrest, the police stormed the Algiers Motel, where they suspected a sniper had been firing at them. Officers terrorized several black teenage boys and two white women who had been stay-
DETROIT — They crept through this city clutching their rifles, an army of jittery cops and National Guardsmen surrounded by an armored battalion that seemed more suitable for a Vietnam jungle than a Middle American thoroughfare. But this was war, the early days of an uprising by black Detroiters. And so the mostly white law enforcement regime rolling through the caldron of smoke and rubble was determined to restore order by any means necessary.
ing there, a macabre episode that ended with the deaths of three of the boys and the acquittal of the officers.
Ms. Bigelow received the story from the screenwriter Mark Boal at a time when its importance and necessity could not be ignored: A grand jury had just declined to indict a white police officer in the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-american teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
“It was two things simultaneously,” Ms. Bigelow, 65, said of her initial reaction. “One is kind of a, ‘I’m white, am I the right person to do it?’ And the other is an extremely emotional reaction to the constant recurring of these events.”
She realized, she added, “that I have this opportunity to expose this story” in the hope that it generates a conversation.
It is a daring time for this movie. Detroiters, coming out of the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy, are touchy over how their city’s narratives are told. And more broadly, we are in a moment of heightened scrutiny over how black Americans are treated by the police and how they are portrayed in films, books and news coverage.
Ms. Bigelow readily admits that she was an outsider trying to tell a story touching on some of the roots of Detroit’s pain. From the all-tooexpected outcome of the trial of the police officers, to the way the officers concocted stories to justify the shootings, when the focus is not on who made the film, it is striking to see how the picture lives in the present day.
“If you don’t face the sort of, the travesties that are constantly recurring in this culture,” she said, “how are they ever going to change?”