Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have teamed up twice before, on The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). It is tempting, then, to see Detroit as the climax of this team’s war trilogy, where the war comes home.
The film brings us to the city in the summer of 1967. It is set off with a series of images drawn from Jacob Lawrence paintings showing the rising racial segregation of the city, the promise and failure of industrialization for the people there, and the ensuing division and desperation permeating the atmosphere.
Like Bigelow and Boal’s previous films, the movie itself isn’t about the broader issues playing out. Instead, it is a cinematic attempt to bring the viewer into the heads of a select few characters caught up in those issues. In this regard, the film is excellent. We are brought face-to-face with the white racist cop (Officer Krauss, played by Will Poulter) again and again. We see his initial musings about what’s wrong with “them” (African Americans) which today would be defended by the Alt-right and its neo-nazi allies as mere free speech. Then his shooting of an unarmed black man in the back. Then his denial-and-then-defense of said shooting before his fed up boss. And finally in the long sequence of events unfolding at The Algiers, a motel just beyond the borders of the unrest unfolding in the city.
We are brought face-to-face with Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a black security guard at a grocery store, working two jobs. Dismukes goes to The Algiers as an impossible hero: a black man in a uniform that buys him just enough trust from the white cops and national guard troops to move freely, but not enough to have actual power over the situation as it spirals on. And we are brought face-to-face with Larry Reed (Algee Smith) a singer in an up-and-coming soul group called The Dramatics whose shot at fame is dashed by unrest erupting just before he and his group were set to perform at the Fox Theater. Reed and his friend, the band manager, wind up on the streets struggling to get home, or at least to safety, caught between rocks thrown at their bus and rows of white cops yelling menacingly at them to go home. A number of other characters are introduced, and developed just enough to allow for a connection, if only fleeting.
But the film, like the two before it, is driven far more by the intense situation that the characters are thrown into: in this case what feels like two solid hours in an annex of The Algiers motel.
What unfolds is as horrific as it is predictable. The racist cop terrorizes and murders two black men; an idiot colleague kills another. Another colleague plays along. One white national guardsman helps, a tiny bit, before surrendering control and responsibility and slinking out the front door. Another white state police officer is told of the horror unfolding inside and, with utmost respectable cowardice, moves on with little more than a moment’s pause.
Watching this, as a white male in a theatre filled with a mostly black audience, I could only feel exasperated shame at what I witnessed.
If you watch closely, you can just about count the times when a single small action from a white person could have turned the tide of the events. Yet no one does a thing.
Like virtually every officer-involved killing of a person of color since then, the jury (one more place where white people hold power over all others) finds the officers not guilty. There is no justice here. We don’t have to look far, just two months ago in Minnesota, to see history repeating itself in the acquittal of the officer who killed Philando Castile.
And this is the power of Detroit, being shaken from one’s complicity with a moral ‘gut-punch’. It is a call to examine one’s place in systems of oppression: racism, patriarchy, capitalism. That examination will be unique for each of us, but it should not be passed over lightly. The harm of our actions (karma) in these systems isn’t just out there. It degrades us to very extent that we have power to bring these structures down – even if only a little. There is no need to resort to any heroic ideal or other myth of perfection, inside or out.
But we do need to do something. A very good Buddhist step is simply to step out of the flow of society, examining one’s own ignorances, prejudices, biases, complicity. Next, talk to people. Build communities of folks committed to working on these things. Grow, unite, build solidarity. Be prepared to fight the structural violences of the world with non-violence. As the Buddha taught:
the rod of violence breeds danger & fear:
Look at people quarreling.
I will tell of how I experienced dismay.
Seeing people floundering
like fish in small puddles,
competing with one another — as I saw this, fear came into me.
The world was entirely without substance.
All the directions were knocked out of line.
Wanting a haven for myself,
I saw nothing that wasn’t laid claim to.
Seeing nothing in the end but competition,
I felt discontent.
And then I saw an arrow here, so very hard to see, embedded in the heart.
Overcome by this arrow you run in all directions.
But simply on pulling it out you don’t run, you don’t sink…
Whatever things are tied down in the world,
you shouldn’t be set on them.
Having totally penetrated sensual pleasures, sensual passions, you should train for your own Unbinding.
— Sn 4.15