'Detroit' Forces Audiences to Look at an Ugly Moment of History

Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures

Kathryn Bigelow's dramatic retelling of the infamous 1967 Algiers Motel brutality compels us to reckon with things we might wish to avoid, to feel the rage others felt.

In April 1992, Los Angeles went up in flames.

Most of us who lived here should have known something was coming. Ever since the Rodney King trial got underway — and even before that, when video of his beating disabused even cockeyed optimists about the police treatment of African-Americans — it was clear that anger was simmering in this smiling city. Far away from the palm-fringed boulevards and sun-drenched beaches, kept at a safe remove from the air-conditioned cars and airy offices, a far more troubled L.A. coexisted with the idealized version that had graced so many movies. And then suddenly that parallel city exploded in violence, leading to a week of riots, $1 billion in property damage, 12,000 arrests and 63 heartbreaking, unnecessary, irreversible deaths.

I still remember watching this as it happened from a distance. Peering out from my office high above Sunset Blvd., I could see smoke wafting from South Central L.A., a part of the city I barely knew, just like so many other privileged white members of the film community. I remember comparing notes with friends across town in an endless flurry of phone calls. “Is it safe?” we repeated over and over, like the Nazi dentist in Marathon Man. “Is it safe?”

If I were to tell anyone today that I lived through the L.A. riots, I’d be lying. Yes, I lived in L.A. when it experienced the riots (a word that subtly prejudices us; the term rebellion is equally valid), and yet, as so often in this city of multiple identities, where geographical and class divides keep one person’s experiences light years apart from another’s, I never actually lived through them. I observed everything through my window and the glass prism of my television. The nightmare that others were enduring took place just 10 or 12 miles away; but I was anesthetized to it, immunized to the full scope of the horror by having it filtered through a cathode ray tube.

To this day, I’ve only been able to understand the riots as an outsider. No one has ever taken me inside, made me know what it feels like to be crushed by an all-powerful oppressor, or feel the revulsion I should have felt then at a society that benefits one group even as it does so much to hurt another.

Until now.

The miracle of Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit is that it compels us to reckon with things we might wish to avoid, to feel the rage others felt and identify with those at the bottom of society rather than the top. True, her story is specific to one city and one event that took place 2,000 miles away and half a century ago; but anyone who watches it will emerge with a new view of the heart of darkness, whether it’s in Michigan or California or any of the many places where urban unrest has occurred, and is still occurring.

Detroit isn’t about one city; it’s about America.

For those who haven’t seen it — and I hope you will — the movie charts the beginning of the events that commenced July 23, 1967, lasted for five days, left 2,500 stores looted and 43 people dead. In particular, it focuses on one tale: the assault by a group of policemen on a number of African-Americans (and two white women) staying at the Algiers Motel. For sheer awfulness, it’s only a half-step away from the torture scenes in Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty.

What Americans learned about the matter was almost entirely disseminated to them by white, middle-class newsmen who may have empathized but never truly knew what it was like to be mistreated on a daily basis, to put up with more and more until the bearable became unbearable and suddenly something snapped.

Count me among that group. Like many, I existed somewhere in the borderland between innocence and ignorance. And the terrible thing is, I still do.

No matter how much I try, I’m still getting my information from the same people and similar places — the broadcast networks, the cable news divisions, NPR — all of which have value, but none of which go into adequate depth on the problems facing the poor and minorities in this country.

Our media still gives us all too few accounts — both in fiction and non-fiction — about African-Americans and Hispanics, as well as the blue-collar and unemployed. The stories that we do get barely scratch the surface of the real hardships confronting those who face poverty and injustice.

Hollywood films are dominated by the feel-good; the brands and franchises that have replaced substantive filmmaking reduce everything to a fantasy world of superheroes and villains, of good and bad and black and white. God forbid we should identify with the bad guys, or see people similar to ourselves doing anything wrong. Our morals are never challenged, our ideology never thrown into question.

Nor does the news do any better. Switch on Fox or CNN or MSNBC any evening and the shows are saturated with the mosh pit in the White House, or the sexiest scandal-du-jour. Ivanka, Scaramucci, Spicer — these commedia dell’arte characters may be shaping our lives, but it’s their soap opera that engages us, not the policies they’re promoting.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taped ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir — to name but one — knowing I’m going to be entertained by the latest Twitter tempest or (literal) tornado, even as the newscast largely ignores so much else. Syria? Libya? Child malnutrition? The world of the underdog has no place here. Ratings are driven by what’s fun.

Who needs reality when we’ve got reality TV?

But without confronting the real, without understanding the pain millions endure, especially in our inner cities, how are we ever going to fix it?

Bigelow’s single greatest accomplishment is that she looks this dead in the eye and never blinks. She’s our greatest cinematic explorer of the recent past, a historian no less impressive because she paints with the image rather than words.

Her American history trilogy (add this to The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty) may be depressing, but it’s nonetheless valid. No one has disputed how dreadfully the police behaved in Detroit, and yet no other filmmaker has had the guts to take this on.

Believe me, Detroit’s no fun. I hated watching perpetrators who looked more like me than the victims. I loathed suffering with those who suffered, even in the comfort of my armchair. But awareness of suffering is the first step on the path to reform.

Like Dunkirk, Detroit immerses us in one protracted historical moment, an event that lasted a few days and then was over; like Dunkirk, it avoids conventional narrative, psychological insight or character development. But it goes further than Nolan’s picture in challenging our ideas of right and wrong. Dunkirk reassures us that, horrific as war may be, there’s at least some glory at its molten core. When it comes to urban warfare, there’s none.

Life, Bigelow seems to be saying, is nasty, brutish and short. But if it is, we need to know. Showing us that, without flinching, is what separates the great artists from the very good.