Bigelow (USA 2017) John Boyega,
viewed: Cineworld Newcastle 29 Aug 2017; ticket £4.00
White man’s games
Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Detroit’ is a movie whose background/narrative is built about the 1967 Detroit riots. Her movie starts with an intertitle text that gives a brief grounding resume about the situation, in the 1960’s, of Afro-Americans in Northern states of the USA. The text tells of the large migration of Southern Blacks to the North that took place before and after the First World War. They left the South to escape poverty discrimination and segregation, and to take up work in the rapidly expanding industrial and manufacturing economy of the Northern cities such as Chicago and Detroit. White unease with this migration caused a steady movement of white population to the suburbs and zonally segregated housing. The text concludes that with the rise in racial tension, ‘Change’ was ‘inevitable’.
What the text doesn’t quite say, but the movie to some extent does show, is that in the North Afro-Americans encountered a phantom segregation phantom discrimination that mirrored their previous experience in the South. But this phantom discrimination was unlike that in the South. In the North discrimination was/is never openly admitted or acknowledged. It’s the North’s dirty little secret, made most visible in policing: the use of City Police Departments to make sure the Black populations were kept in line by intimidation, that Blacks knew their place and were brutally reminded of their worth.
Bigelow’s Detroit sets out its stall with a text, albeit with a rather woolly socio-cultural statement, but one that at least gives the film an initial context. But after this opening, Bigelow’s movie becomes progressively decontextualized becoming a sequential series of genres, locating race problems within the realm of the move type. Detroit changes its concern and its focus as it slips out of the context of race into the comfort zone of familiar Hollywood audience fodder: the spectacle, the horror movie, the oppositional court room drama.
Bigelow’s camera structures her film from the conventional privileged theatrical mode, allowing her story to be told only through conventional narrative and editing means. But the pain of racial discrimination, in particular in relation to Afro- Americans, is something felt from a point of view, a point of view of those experiencing it. Bigelow’s scenario never allows her camera to take on point of view of the subjects, it simply trudges around capturing the action.
After the opening text the second section of the movie places the camera in the midst of the Detroit riots. The camera moves around to cover different areas of the riot action introducing both the white psychopathic local guardsman Krauss as he murders a black man by shooting him in the back, and to the members the Dynamics as their gig is cancelled because of the riots and they hole up in the Algiers hotel. The Detroit riots, sparked by a late night police raid on a Black party, are characterised by confusion and chaos. With the introduction of the riots, Bigelow in the manner of her filming moves off the focus on race, to shift the visual into the familiar Hollywood zone of spectacle. Even with Krauss’ murder at the heart of the riot section, the emphasis is on action covered from multiple locations, not on meaning.
The third section of the movie is set in the Algiers hotel and is a dramatization of notorious events that occurred in this location at the time of the riots.
A group of Guardsmen force entry into the Algiers Hotel where they believe a sniper may have taken shots at them. At this point Bigelow shifts her film firmly into the category of genre. ‘Detroit’ now turns into a certain class of horror movie. Whilst Bigelow and her script writer Mark Boal, may say that race (and sex black men with white women) is still the primary element in the incident, my feeling is that the mechanics of the theatre of cruelty take over and dominate the film at this point. The psychopathic Guardsman, Krauss uses his position of temporary but total power and domination to psychologically torture abuse physically assault and finally kill those in his power. Krauss is driven more by his own gratification than any other motivation. For Krauss race legitimates his actions but probably does not drive them. He might behave in a similar way to his wife. Movies in which a psychopath plays cruel games with people under his control a old Hollywood territory, familiar from gangster films and parodied by Tarantino.
The third section of the movie, in a court room setting with the alleged perpetrators of the Algiers Hotel murders on trial, is mechanical in the manner in which it is scripted and shot. A rerun of a thousand familiar filmed renderings of the Court Room drama. It reminds the viewer of Perry Mason, Man Called Ironside or perhaps more appositely Inherit the Wind or to Kill a Mocking Bird. In relation to these latter works Detroit lacks their intellectual focus and intensity. ‘Detroit’ as it switches to Court setting, simply remains in game genre mode. One in which we see the familiar site of lawyers bludgeoning witnesses, biased judges favouring one parties objections and the eventual outcome of innocence for the whites. Again Bigelow and Boal might say that race is the focus of the way in which this section is shot. But without point of view, shot simply as an oppositional court room drama it is the structural elements of the theatre that dominate, not the dilemma of race.
‘Detroit’ I think offers nothing to understanding of the playing out of race issues in the USA. Without being able to offer some sort of point of view, either of black or of white, the issue of race is reduced to simplistic cinematic formulae. adrin neatrour email@example.com