DETROIT: Cinema on the Sidelines

It’s been gut wrenching to watch displays of clear-cut police brutality over the last few weeks as we have been forced re-live traumatic historical events and face difficult questions regarding systemic racism in the police force, and acknowledge the troubling history of race relations in the United States. Even just a recent look at American history would remind us that events just like this have happened before, and have resulted in no real structural change and no genuine acknowledgment of a deeply troubling police culture. These horrifying episodes seem to happen over and over again with almost no accountability for those involved. It has become maddening to watch them play out over and over and over again.

Fortunately, it would seem that the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd is taking a different shape than those which preceded it; as I write this (nearly three weeks after his death), anti-racism protests continue both nationwide and internationally and show no signs of slowing down (all in the midst of a global pandemic). While there are an abundance of films that more directly address the struggle and identity of what it means to be Black in America, I’ve chosen to discuss the film Detroit (2017) this week, allow me to explain…

Detroit is directed by Academy-Award winning director Kathryn Bigelow, known best for The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), films which feature what most would consider heavy subject matter (say following an Explosive Ordinance Disposal team fighting insurgents in Iraq or chronicling the decade-long manhunt and eventual killing of Osama Bin Laden). For those of you that have seen either of the two films you may have noticed that both films draw heavily from the documentary style of filmmaking; raw and stripped down works, which at times are overwhelming and disorienting for the viewer.

In my undergrad I wrote a paper discussing “subversive directors” about Bigelow’s decision to purposefully and consistently choose to employ techniques which produce a quasi-documentary feel. I argued that the reasoning for this was to encourage an ‘objective’ reading of the events depicted on the screen, rather than to have the events filtered through a particular viewpoint or perspective. In Detroit she chooses to chronicle the 1967 Detroit Riots using this very same style of filmmaking, and chronicles some of the most horrific clashes between the Black community and police in American history.

The film begins with the staged raid of an unlicensed and predominantly Black club, which sees confrontations between police and Black members of the community begin to escalate, and eventually boil over. Detroit plunges into chaos, as looters and rioters destroy the city and the Michigan State Police and National Guard are called in to restore order. We are eventually led to the Algiers Motel, and are forced to experience the horrors of a real incident which saw the local Detroit police brutalize and torture a group of mostly Black patrons, and resulting in the death of three.

In this tense, claustrophobic, and panic driven sequence, Bigelow unloads her arsenal of quick-cuts, handheld camera shots, and quick zooms. These techniques produce a quasi-documentary style of filmmaking which forces us to watch in horror while we safely “assume the role of a privileged and safe observer of the action.”[1] The film ends with all officers involved in the incident acquitted of all charges, a parallel to so many incidents from recent history.

Detroit touches on so many issues that the George Floyd murder has forced back into the public conversation:

It reminds us of systemic racial bias in the police force where issues like evidence-planting and police brutality are commonplace.

It reminds us of a biased legal system which so easily allows for police offers to avoid accountability for their actions.

Finally, and what I argue is most important, it reminds so many of us of our privileged position that allows to strictly observe, rather than force us to engage in the fight against systemic racism.

As I mentioned earlier, there are several other films, which do a much better job exploring Black identity in America. Angelica Jade Bastién, a Chicago based critic and essayist, has suggested the same, and has levied criticism on Detroit, calling it a “hollow spectacle, displaying rank racism and countless deaths that has nothing to say about race, the justice system, police brutality, or the city that gives it its title.”[2]

While I do agree that Detroit offers very little in the way of actual constructive commentary, I would contend that the ultimate message of Detroit is not about what it is, but what it isn’t. Bigelow is not looking to solve any problem in her film; she’s acknowledging that one exists. She uses her raw and ‘objective’ style of filmmaking to remind us of the privileged position many of us have.

We are forced to watch from the sidelines and at some point in the film we ask ourselves: What am I doing to help fight against the racism that I’m lucky enough not to experience?


[1] Stork, Matthias. “Chaos cinema: The decline and fall of action filmmaking.” Press Play 22 (2011).

[2] Bastien, Angelica J. “Detroit.” Reviews, RogerEbert.com, 28 July 2017.

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