Black People Didn't Die So You Could Learn a Lesson

Detroit is yet another example of America's need to exculpate itself by watching black people die.
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When I set out to see the movie Detroit early last week, Charlottesville hadn't happened yet. When I left the theater, burned out and overwhelmed by the film, Charlottesville hadn't happened yet. Even when I decided to write this, late in the evening a few days after seeing the film, Charlottesville hadn't happened yet. It had been planned, of course. It had been discussed and set in motion. But the action of it—culminating in white-supremacist murder—hadn't yet been carried out. I say this only to say that there is a Charlottesville brewing everywhere, at all times. There is something brewing somewhere at this moment, even if it doesn't get carried out with the ferocity of this past weekend's events. There is perhaps violence brewing in your neighborhood right now, reader, even as you find yourself tired of discussing all of the ways your country is broken. There is violence brewing as I type these words, because someone will always want to be feared by those whom they want dead. There is violence brewing in a church, or in a field with a cross on fire, or in a boardroom, or in the basement of a nice home on a nice street where people wave at each other and make small talk about what the sky is up to. I say this to say that I watched a movie about real American violence and, while it's a period piece, it didn't feel like history to me. I suppose I should be used to that by now. Even when the statues fall, there is still that violence brewing somewhere—a basic and persistent part of America's lineage.

Detriot is a film that resurfaces one of America's untold stories of racial violence. During the summer of 1967, what were characterized as urban riots broke out across the country, most notably in Detroit in late July. The 12th Street Riots lasted for five days, resulting in 43 dead, over 7,200 arrested, and 2,000 buildings destroyed. On July 26th, three black teenagers were murdered by police in the Algiers Motel, after cops had stormed a house on the property looking for snipers; Carl Cooper was 17, Aubrey Pollard was 19, and Fred Temple was 18. During the course of the violent night at the Algiers, other patrons of the motel, mostly black, were beaten, threatened, and violated by the Detroit police. All of the survivors of the night had their lives altered—most notably soul singer Cleveland Larry Reed, who left his group, the Dramatics, shortly after the incident, unable to reckon with performing through his trauma. Detroit works to re-tell the story of that night—a difficult task, since the cases were sealed after all of the officers were acquitted years later; there weren't many witnesses who could give full accounts of the night to the filmmakers, either. The film's portrayal of that night is difficult to watch—stunning in its pursuit of chasing violence with the all-too familiar taste of injustice. But all too often in this type of film, trauma becomes more of a main character than the characters themselves. 

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The last hit by the Dramatics where you can hear Cleveland Larry Reed's voice is "All Because of You," released in 1967. It was a minor hit, but it was the band's first breakthrough. It is a good but unspectacular bit of late-'60s soul: A guitar walks up and down the backbone of the beat to build a funk groove, while a singer moans sweet about love and longing. It was a song that emerged from the group's brief stint with Motown records, a dream for the Detroit-based singers. Cleveland Larry Reed was in the Algiers Motel during the night portrayed in Detroit, having escaped the riots to seek what he imagined would be refuge. After surviving the brutality and murders that took place that night, Cleveland Larry Reed found God.

Reed's real-life story is fascinating, in part because of what he walked away from. His group was right on the verge of a breakthrough—one that they had been inching toward for years, and finally achieved after Reed left. Instead, Reed found solace in church music, where he still finds solace today. Reed stayed in Detroit, leading and singing in several church choirs, having given up his previous life. He physically survived Algiers, but his interior was different than it was when he'd entered the motel that night. When I see talk on the Internet, or even talk within my own community of peers about survival of police violence, there is a relief about escaping it. But there's little talk of the lasting impact that something like the Algiers Motel incident could have on someone who crawled of it alive. The story of Cleveland Larry Reed could be a film of its own—one where the focus is not trauma but survival.

Detroit was not this movie, and doesn't aim to be.

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Detroit begins the same way the 12th Street Riots began: with the raid of an unlicensed after-hours spot where black revelers were congregating. The film explodes into violence almost instantly, and then remains there all the way through, to varying degrees. I don't begrudge this approach—at least not on the surface. It is possible that relentless brutality was the only way for director Kathryn Bigelow to frame the film and execute all its narrative points. From the movie's onset, you are treated to visuals of black people being violently mistreated—black people who have stories we don't know, names we don't know. Bodies that are simply vehicles for the execution of violence.

The issue I take with Detroit is not how it begins, but rather that, by the time it ends, there isn't much to create a change in the viewer from the violence that opens the film to the violence that closes it. Melvin Dismukes, the security guard who attempted to act as a calming influence during the police abuse and who, throughout the film, is shown as a person who has a heart for the black people in his community, is something of a shell. We see him at home only once, talking to his mother. We know that he works two jobs, but are left to imagine the reasons why. He is gentle, warm, and forgiving; without much of a backstory, his character feels like a token gesture toward the notion of "not all cops." Most of the other black characters who get any real screen time are shown only through horrific distress. One of the film’s starkest moments very briefly depicts Tanya Blanding, a four-year-old who was killed during the riots when she was mistaken for a sniper. The film affords Tanya's actual life less than half an on-screen minute. We know her only by the gunfire that came for her, and the cut-scene that follows. We are left simply to assume that she's dead.

It can feel obtuse to criticize a film for violence, when the filmmakers' strict motive is to depict a largely untold violent event in America's history: At some point, the violence must be shown before we can take it to task. But even knowing what I was going into, I didn't feel good about the starkness of the tale, the familiarity of the violence, or the inevitability of the conclusion. And that's the mission statement with these things, right? To arouse discomfort in the hopes that it will clear a path toward truth. Still, I wonder who is meant to feel the discomfort most strongly, and why. I think about this often, when videos play on loop of a black person being murdered, or when their murderer does not face legal justice. I don't know the demographic for the sort of rage that this movie provokes, nor what I am supposed gain from seeing blood that could be the blood of so many people I love, pooling below an unmoving body.

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A thing I have found myself thinking about often over the past five years is the way I see the value of a dead black person used as a tool to help non-black people find their way to an emotional response. I tend to think of empathy as something that is not an end result, but simply a path-clearing emotion. And I think in order to arrive there, it's vital to find a way into the nuanced interior of someone else's life, especially after that life has been taken violently. When I lived in the northeast, I felt most invisible in public spaces, in ways that I didn't feel in other regions—for better or, sometimes, for worse. I lived in a liberal area with non-black people who were open about their interest in black lives after a black life was taken, but somewhat less so when a black life was existing directly in front of them. I struggled with this problem during my time in the northeast, trying to make sense of this disconnect—one that I didn't feel in other places I'd lived—where there were clear and distinct lines drawn between socio-political performance and applied behaviors. The same people I would see at rallies against a racial injustice would be the same people hastily walking by young black people on the street without speaking, or cutting people of color in line at the grocery store. It made for a jarring and confusing existence—one where I thought about the measure of worth being tied to the way someone died; about what could be gained from a body's exit.

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If I can't criticize Detroit for showing violence as a necessary narrative function (which I do believe it is), then I still have to wonder instead what purpose this movie serves. I have to wonder that in the same way I wonder what purpose it serves to show people videos of citizens being executed by law enforcement. There is an argument here—one that says if we don't show people the ills of the past, they are doomed to repeat it.

White supremacists descended on Charlottesville last Friday evening and, by Sunday morning, one person was dead and several others were injured after one of the supremacists drove his car through a crowd of counter-protesters. The easy thing is to say that this is all about monuments, as opposed to saying that the monuments are actually a weapon for a scared and weak people who find themselves, in a moment of panic, looking to instill fear in others. That it can be done under the mask of protecting a flawed country's flawed architecture makes it seem like there is a noble cause behind the torches and the violence, but fear is at the core of this: the fear of people who see that the cherished myth of their superiority is crumbling, despite all institutional support they still enjoy.

The argument that I can't escape, then, is that most Americans are not yet ready to take proper accountability for our history, and, as a result, most of us are not ready to learn from it. We are equipped to witness our history and feel bad about it, sure. This happens every few years with a film, or a documentary, or even a visit to some historical grieving ground. But we stop at feeling, I think largely because to reckon with history means it becomes significantly less romantic. It is one thing to watch black people die on film during the re-telling of a true story and feel bad as you exit the theater, and perhaps even on your drive home. It is one thing to do this, maybe even easier to do this, if the film does not offer a full glimpse into the lived lives of those black people. The most fleshed-out of Detroit's characters is Reed, in that we see enough of his hopes and dreams to feel for him when they collapse, but not enough of them to understand his motivations after the collapse.

But it is another thing entirely to reckon with how the systems that killed will continue to kill and how many of them draw strength from the roots of a country that has little interest in pulling them up; the closer any of us come to doing so, the angrier the reactionary violence that waits on the other side. This is to say, of course, that fighting to pull up those roots is still vital, but I left Detroit asking myself whether it's possible for a movie like that to move anyone toward anything other than feelings, and perhaps a tentative connecting of dots across historical lines.

But really what I want is movies where no black people die in predictable ways that we can already see every day on the news or on Facebook Live. I don't think that Detroit is entirely a failure. The film is beautifully shot, in its own way, and I'm sure that many people found it to be necessary and important art. But I like to be clear, these days, about what is explicitly being asked of an audience, and what that audience is meant to take away from whatever is being asked of them. We are a country where a lot of people still consider the very mention of race to be a bad or dangerous thing, which is why Neo-Nazis and black activists are measured as equal on some people's scales. No amount of televised black death will undo that degree of conditioning.

I get more out of seeing a black life lived, a black life ended by nothing but an hourglass running out after a full collection of brilliant years. In Detroit, the living black characters exist only to be marked for trauma or death. And if there is to be no other way around that, I don't see much of the virtue in making the film at all. Particularly after this past weekend—just one past weekend in a long line of past weekends—I'm wondering how many different ways there are to point to a single wound before realizing that the pointing isn't going to make the wound close.

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