How Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Detroit’ Erases Black Women
The Oscar-winning filmmaker’s latest is an impressive, kinetic work that’s betrayed by its ending—and a glaring omission.
One of the most horrifyingly abundant images in America is the face of a black mother grieving for her slain child. Gwen Carr, Sybrina Fulton, and Lezley McSpadden (mothers of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and Mike Brown respectively) were among the many “Mothers of the Movement” who endorsed Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention last year. When black boys and men are killed, it is often their mothers who take up the cause of justice when the legal system fails them.
It’s an unsung tradition that includes brave women like Rebecca Pollard, the mother of Aubrey Pollard, one of three young black men murdered at the Algiers Motel during the 1967 Detroit riot.
It is Rebecca’s stunned face that was pictured in the Chicago Tribune on June 11, 1969, seen leaving the courtroom after an all-white jury found Detroit police officer Ronald August innocent in the murder of her son. Rebecca’s face is why it’s so egregious that there are no black women in the trailer for Detroit. Social media was quick to call out the seeming erasure of black women from the story of the 1967 riot—an understandable charge given that the film’s title is a misnomer, as it has little to do with the city of Detroit itself and the entire scope of the riot.
Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s film instead focuses on one particular incident during the riot, which was chronicled in John Hershey’s book The Algiers Motel Incident. On the third night of the riot, reports of a sniper at the Algiers Motel led the Detroit Police Department, the Michigan State Police, the National Guard, and private security guard Melvin Dismukes (played by John Boyega) to the Algiers. What resulted was the death of three black men and the beating and torture of nine other individuals—seven black men and two white women.
In 1968, amid the trial of the three Detroit PD officers involved in the shooting (the state police and National Guard abandoned the scene to avoid potential involvement in civil-rights violations), Hershey penned The Algiers Motel Incident. He interviewed survivors, victims’ family members, and some law-enforcement officers. If Detroit were based on this source material, then complaints about Bigelow’s erasure of black women would be unfounded. There were no black women involved in the actual event at the Algiers.
But there’s just one problem: Bigelow’s film, as scripted by frequent collaborator Mark Boal, is not an adaptation. The rights to The Algiers Motel Incident have never been for sale, per Hershey’s insistence, so Detroit is actually a fictional account of the Algiers incident gathered from source materials and interviews. It’s the fatal flaw in an otherwise excellent, terse, and enthralling film. I don’t find Bigelow at fault for approaching this story as a white woman, at least in the scope of the Algiers episode, but when the film attempts to make a political statement about the incident and the riots, both she and the film falter.
To be fair, a considerable part of Bigelow’s appeal has always been her unique approach to worlds foreign to her. After gaining notice with Jenny Wright and Jamie Lee Curtis vehicles, 1987’s vampire film Near Dark and 1989’s cop thriller Blue Steel, she didn’t truly hit the big time until she abandoned female protagonists with 1991’s Point Break. The surfer heist movie was a sendup of hypermasculine action movie tropes, presenting a new, feminine vision for how we could see action stars on screen: tan, lissome, tenderly emotional, and with gorgeous, flowing locks. It remains perhaps the most influential film of her career.
Its success further motivated Bigelow to investigate what it means to be a man—a question most male filmmakers never ask themselves when they set out to make an action film. The Hurt Locker is Bigelow’s most successful exploration of manhood, using the trappings of the Iraq War to deconstruct performative masculinity and the fetish of combat. If the film at times feels like jingoistic propaganda, it’s because Bigelow taps into the joie de vivre of war and the idea that, as she put it, “war’s dirty little secret is that some men love it.” It’s no wonder then that Bigelow used the same approach in crafting Jessica Chastain’s character Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, avoiding explicit discussions of gender politics in favor of depicting a woman unfazed by torture who performed her job with aplomb amid the hypermasculine hunt for Osama bin Laden.
In Detroit, Bigelow succeeds within the confines of the motel, where the macho posturing of the Detroit police officers stands in contrast to Boyega’s meekness in the presence of white authority figures, even though he is an authority figure himself (for which he’s branded an “Uncle Tom” by a local neighborhood kid, in a moment that could’ve been communicated with less corny black vernacular, if we’re being honest). Boal’s script nails the fraught emotions that occur between black men and white men in a racially tense moment and Bigelow turns up the claustrophobia, making each and every scene as taut and frightening as they should be (side note: I hope Bigelow returns to her Near Dark roots to make a horror movie soon. The culture needs it). Unfortunately, the lights don’t come up once the Algiers victims escape their Sartre-esque trap. Boal’s script continues on to the aftermath of the riot and the trials of officers Ronald August, Robert Paille, and David Senak.
It’s here that the claims of erasing black women from the narrative hold weight. Detroit breaks tradition with most of Bigelow’s oeuvre as she attempts to use her film to bring some modicum of justice to Carl Cooper, Fred Temple, and Aubrey Pollard, who never received it from that all-white jury in 1969.
In one fleeting moment after the officers are acquitted, a black woman insists to reporters that if white men were found in the hotel with black women, no one would have died. It’s a statement that sadly rings true, but in the context of Detroit, laying this piece of dialogue at the end of the film instead of dissecting it exposes the weaknesses in Bigelow’s and Boal’s approach. To truly condemn these officers and achieve justice for the grieving families—as well as a ravaged city that still has not fully recovered—you must include the stories of the black women who sustain the movement; who grieved for their sons so profoundly that they held mock trials in their churches (one of which saw Rosa Parks famously act as a juror) to prepare them for the verdict and educate the community on what happened that night. Detroit is a triumph when Bigelow documents a single night of horrors, but when she has to conjure up the souls of the men and women who awoke the next morning, the spirits of Detroit are silent.