I had been waiting for an opportunity to watch Detroit since it came out in 2017. Finally, during the Christmas break of 2018/19, I got a second to breathe… and watch it. I was all sorts of emotions. It is a hard watch and I was thoroughly moved – as I had expected to be – till 10 minutes to the end when I started crying. Properly crying, mind you. I then proceeded to cry for 3 days straight. I have since watched various parts of it over and over. This is not really a review but a commentary, but please be aware, there will be spoilers after this point.
Detroit (2017) directed by Kathryn Bigelow, is a fact-based drama set in 1967 Detroit, during one of the rebellions of the era. [I am using the word ‘rebellion’ rather than ‘riot’ because, saying ‘race riots’ usually hides the fact that a dominant racial group engages in violence against a minority and disadvantaged racial group.] The focus of the movie is the events at the Algiers Motel on the night of July 25–26, 1967. On that night, armed officers from various units enter the motel and, at the very least, interrogate 12 people, 2 white women and 10 young Black men. By the end of the night, 3 of those Black men are dead and the rest severely traumatised and/or injured. 3 members of the Detroit Police Department and a private security guard were charged with their murders. They were acquitted by an all-white jury. Those are the bare facts.
There are two very closely related points arising from my viewing that I would like to examine here; first the importance of understanding the intractability of systemic/institutional racism and how this differs from direct/individual racism, how direct racism needs systemic racism to survive. Secondly, and here I am reading more or less directly from Fanon, how we understand and depict ‘the wretched’, (Les Damnés in the original French), how we understand the nature of the violence inherent in the system of systemic racism, how that violence moulds the psyche of les damnés and how failing to acknowledge systemic violence affects les damnés, how it distorts the way we portray/understand their reaction to direct racism.
First, let me introduce to Frantz Fanon:
Frantz Fanon was a psychiatrist, philosopher, revolutionary, Pan-Africanist, and writer from the French colony of Martinique, though later in life he worked for the Algerian revolutionary movement and took Algerian citizenship. He is buried in Algeria. He was particularly concerned with the psychopathology of colonization, and the human, social, and cultural consequences of decolonization. His work is particularly important for understanding the violence inherent in the nature of a system that creates and maintains racial hierarchies, and how that violence is hidden in deceptive and ultimately false benignity. You could say that it is a coincidence that Fanon’s work was in Algeria and the events depicted in Detroit happened in the Algiers Motel [Algiers is the capital of Algeria]. Maybe.
The following passage from Fanon’s book, The Wretched of the Earth , which describes how racial hierarchies are maintained intellectually, illustrates how the system creates an atmosphere that overwhelming criminalises the othered body:
‘Among the characteristics of the Algerian people as observed by colonialism we will particularly notice their appalling criminality. Before 1954 magistrates, policemen, barristers, journalists, and legal doctors agreed unanimously that criminality in Algeria was a problem. It was affirmed that the Algerian was a born criminal. A theory was elaborated and scientific proofs were found to support it. This theory was taught in the universities for over twenty years. Algerian medical students received this education and imperceptibly, after accommodating themselves to colonialism, the elite came also to accommodate themselves to the inherent stigma of the Algerian people: they were born slackers, born liars, born robbers, and born criminals.’ p. 296
In Detroit, the police actions mirror the ideas in the preceding passage – a presumption of criminality imposed on Black skin. Note also that in the movie, the focus is on 3 racist police officers, but not so much on those officers who walked away, [one officer said he did not want to become involved in a ‘civil rights thing’] those who did not intervene and the general atmosphere that normalised their racism. Those standing by.
In depicting the events of the movie, an omniscient, facts-based point of view is used, but you see, this is problematic, because where we stand is what we see. The psyche of the brutalised is diametrically opposed to the psyche of the brutaliser. As Fanon says, the brutalised is characterised by the ‘permanent tensing of powerful muscles which are afraid to relax.’ Can an omniscient, facts-based point of view be used effectively to depict both the brutalised and the brutaliser? Or are we doomed to always seek some sort of balance? A balance which takes some humanity from the brutalised giving it to the brutaliser to reduce some of his monstrosity? And I admit I don’t know how to answer this question. How do we depict the brutalised to show his humanity while at the same time humanising the brutaliser? Should we? How do we portray everything that Fanon diagnosed as laying beneath the surface? I must say Karl Greene (played by Anthony Mackie) displays this finely, a silent fury overlaid with frustration and helplessness. He seems to know that in hand-to-hand combat with any one of those police officers he would take them down, decimate them, but the system that he has been told to believe is just, a system for which he has served and risked death as a soldier, will not absolve him. If he takes them down, he goes down with them. If he wishes to survive he must be silent. In his silence, the corporeal body survives, but humanity is been put to death, continually consigned to the ‘zone of non-being‘.
Which brings me to the second point. Direct v systemic racism. It is easy to depict direct racism, it is more dramatic, we watch it and we find it immediately and viscerally reprehensible, repugnant, revolting. But systemic racism has killed and destroyed more bodies and souls than direct racism ever has. In Detroit, direct racism is the violent, hate swilling, bulging veins, spit spewing actions of the police officers. But it only exists because of the systemic racism that empowered them, groomed them, indoctrinated them, nurtured them in its seemingly benign but overwhelmingly postulating embrace. It is systemic racism that told them that Black bodies were criminal bodies (see quote above.) And ultimately, it is systemic racism that lets them go free. And it is because they believe deep down that they have done nothing wrong, they and others like them are empowered to visit violence on othered bodies again. It is because of systemic racism that justice is not done. It is systemic racism that that tells us that this will happen again. It is because of systemic racism that Black bodies are still unmournable bodies, unmattering bodies, ungendered bodies. It is systemic racism that tells us that tomorrow we will shake our heads in shock at another ‘unexpected’ act of direct racism. And justice will not be done again. Like it was not before. Like it will never be done till systemic racism is ended. Race is a social construct, but it was racism that created race, not race that created racism.
So, obviously I have my problems with the movie. Nevertheless, while Detroit was not a great cinematographic hit, I believe it will have a life beyond its box-office existence. I think it is a necessary movie, it is a film that had to be made. The most important stories do not need to make money, they do not need to win awards, they just need to be told. And this story was told. Actual people whose suffering had not been recognised for 50 years had their story told, and that matters.
If you teach policing, I suggest that you get your students to watch Detroit. If you teach Law and Race, race, or social justice in any form, Detroit should be required viewing. It should be watched. (It is going on my Law and Race film club list) If you are interested in humanity, watch this film. If you are interested in justice, watch this film. In short, if you are reading this, watch this film.
The film-makers motivations (as discussed in the video above) for making the movie should also be respected. Mark Boal met with Melvin Dismukes (the security guard who was charged with the police officers, played by John Boyega) and Larry Cleveland Reed (former member of the Dramatics, played by Algee Smith) in 2014. According to Boal, Dismukes broke down crying when recounting the events of that night. While Reed who had not spoken about the event since it happened, shows Boal the fractures in his skull. Visible remnants of the trauma nearly 50 years after that night. Racism of any form leaves its marks on individual lives, some we can see, some we cannot, but they are always there.
Melvin Dismukes is portrayed interestingly. He is all about survival. Not freedom. Making the best you can out of a horrible situation. As he says to one of the Black men at the Algiers, Lee (played by Peyton Alex Smith) ‘I need you to survive the night.’ You could almost say that this is Dismukes’ life philosophy. ‘Survive the night.’ Do what you have to do to survive the night. He survives the night. But at what cost? And if humanity does not wake up and end this self-inflicted scourge, we may not survive the night.
The last 10 minutes are probably the most poignant of the movie. We follow Larry Cleveland Reed: he finds it difficult to sing because of the trauma and then leaves the Dramatics. He tries to remake and rebuild his life in the aftermath of catastrophe. He is alone, he is hurting. Again we see that direct/individual racism is the fruit of the systemic racism tree. At this point we have gone from the big event of the rebellion, to the smaller incident at the Algiers and now we are faced with an aftermath – the complete and irrevocable altering of one individual life. Larry Cleveland Reed’s dreams have been replaced by nightmares, his soul is crushed, his body is scarred. He is robbed of dignity. But he is alive. Iku ti o ba b’eni lori lo, o ta fila danu. Death could have cut his head off, but it only took off his cap/hat … and left lasting scars. He was going nowhere near the source of death again. So he takes up a position as a choir master in his local church.
And I think to myself, what would Reed’s life have been had he received the justice he was denied by systemic racism? Had he been able to believe that Algiers would never happen again? What if he had mattered to the system? What if his soul had healed properly? Does anyone receive counselling? As Barry (played by Joseph David-Jones) says, ‘We all a long way from easy.’ Systemic racism, according to Fanon, is under-surface, imperceptible (to privileged bodies), violence and trauma that people of colour are exposed to daily. And we are all a long way from easy.
Which is probably why listening to Reed singing that song at the end broke me up:
Fanon, Frantz, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Constance Farrington. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 1963.