If you were to just go by the reviews from mainstream media of Kathryn Bigelow’s new film “Detroit”, which tells a gut-wrenching and infuriating story of murder and injustice that occured during the Detroit Riots of ’67, you would think that it was the best movie released this year, hands down.
However, outlets that are outside of the mainstream but with significant reach (Vibe, The Root, The Grio, The Shadow League) have not been as kind to the Oscar-winning director’s most recent creation.
We were in the building, like asbestos in the projects back in the ’80s, to hear Bigelow’s response to a Detroit-based reporter’s question about how she depicted the start of the riots and the seemingly uncharacteristically altruistic behavior of some of the film’s white detectives when confronting the crooked cops depicted in the picture.
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There were also some questions as to the authenticity of portraying any police officer as being remotely helpful to, or understanding of, black sensibilities in 1967.
“I have to say that there was a thorough amount of research, court room documents and eyewitness accounts that led into and helped form the script,” said Bigelow. “I think that some of the things you’re referring to were actually in the court request and the freedom of information act request. I think that it’s very, very authentic to what happened. The trial, on the other hand, that was three trials over a year and a half. We would still be watching the movie if we included all of that.”
Bigelow went on to discuss some key information surrounding the trial that was very important to the overall story but could not be included.
“The last trial, which is predominantly what you’re seeing, took place in Macon, Michigan. It was moved out of the city to an exclusively white community. Therefore, the jury was exclusively white. The judge actually took off the table, manslaughter. So, there was first degree murder and an acquittal and there was, at one point, manslaughter. I don’t know how that happened, I don’t know if it could happen today. There might have been a different result had manslaughter been still on the table. It was extremely complicated, but we did our best to make it without betraying the integrity of the facts that existed, and that’s a difficult needle to thread.”
In my review of “Detroit” I point out the arduous task that Bigelow, a white woman, had in trying to depict a violent portion of American history that she may not have fully appreciated from a cultural perspective due to her upbringing, as well as that of writer Mark Boals.
Kathryn Bigelow 101: The Road to Detroit
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The question regarding her perspective came up during our media session and she tackled it head-on where so many others would have tried to double-talk their way through.
“I certainly had a very long conversation with myself,” she answered matter of factly. “On the one hand, I asked myself ‘Am I really suppossed to make this movie? Absolutely not!’ But on the other hand I thought ‘You have this platform and this story needs to be told.’ That kinda overrode any of the hesitation. Here I thought ‘I have this vehicle, I have this opportunity, this story needs to be told.”
“I took advantage of the opportunity while at the same time realizing it’s a concern, it’s a challenge. I do feel that the neccesity to tell the story is greater than to not tell it.”
The beginnig of “Detroit” dramatizes the events that occured at an afterhours spot called “The Blind Pig.” According to history, the venue was throwing a celebration for black war veterans returning from Vietnam when the Detroit Police Department raided it for its lack of liquor license.
With such a large gathering, a number of police vehicles were called in. Because of the size of the crowd and a locked door, the police were unable to sneak them out, the partygoers were marched out front, lined up against a wall and loaded into paddy wagons in mass. The film depicts this event as the initial spark.
However, Detroiters were quick to mention to me that the shooting of a black woman by the police the night before was the real spark. Star Algee Smith (New Edition), a Saginaw, Michigan resident, took this particular volley of questions regarding the film’s authenticity with his chest.
“I’m not the writer or directer of the movie, but I will comment on that because you have to look at it like at how much information we had to get across in two hours,” said Smith. “To tell the whole thing, you’d need a mini-series to do that. You would have to have 10 or 12 episodes. The whole point of the movie was to point out the injustices that started it. We just tried to get as close as we could to paint the bigger picture. Including every little detail takes more time. But to get you up to speed, I think we did a really good job bringing people up to speed.”
If you’ve ever seen Kathryn Bigelow’s work then you know that she uses violence to sledgehammer home her point in both Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker. I asked actor Laz Alonso, who plays Congressman John Conyers Jr in the movie, what it was like seeing black bodies and blood on screen the first time saw the film.
“I had an opportunity to participate in the takeaways leading up to the film,” said Alonso. “By the time I got to the set I was very, very well read, I had done my research and everything. But I would share a very similar experience that you had when walking out of screening the film. I don’t think that you can intellectualize emotion. When I came out, there were several people from the production company wanting to know how I felt. It was very difficult to speak about it. I just had to be quiet and to myself for a couple of hours off set and take it all in because, as you said, it hits very close to home.”
“Detroit” opened in limited engagements last week and opened nationwide this weekend.