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A White Director, the Police and Race in ‘Detroit’

Now with “Detroit,” this Oscar-winning filmmaker could be facing her most ambitious, and contentious, project to date. She is a white woman from Northern California telling a story of the black experience in civil rights era Detroit, which Ms. Bigelow said was not lost on her. It certainly was not lost on her cybercritics, who from the start were quick to wield billy clubs full of skepticism over whether she had erased the role of black women during the unrest in Detroit or had the cultural pedigree to convey a story of black oppression.

The movie focuses on a little-known horror amid the five-day riot (locals argue that “rebellion” is a more accurate term) that left 43 dead, nearly 1,200 injured and the city scarred. On the third night of the unrest, the police stormed the Algiers Motel, where they suspected a sniper had been firing at them. Officers terrorized several black teenage boys and two white women who had been staying there, a macabre episode that ended with the deaths of three of the boys and the acquittal of the officers. How’s that for reality?

Ms. Bigelow received the story from the screenwriter Mark Boal at a time when its power, importance and necessity could not be ignored: A grand jury had just declined to indict a white police officer in the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.

“It was two things simultaneously,” Ms. Bigelow, 65, said of her initial reaction. “One is kind of a, ‘I’m white, am I the right person to do it?’ And the other is an extremely emotional reaction to the constant recurring of these events.”

She realized, she added, “that I have this opportunity to expose this story in the hope that maybe it either generates a conversation, begins to generate a conversation and/or encourages more stories like this to come forward. To do nothing was not an answer.”

If the time is right for this movie, opening wide on Friday, Aug. 4, after a limited release, it is also daring. Detroiters, coming out of the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy, are touchy over how their city’s narratives are told, whether it be the jaded tales of blight or the glowing renaissance stories that somehow overlook those in the black majority being left behind. And more broadly, we are in a moment of heightened scrutiny over how black Americans are treated by the police and how they are portrayed in films, books and news coverage.


Jack Reynor as an officer inside the Algiers Motel, as depicted in “Detroit.”

Francois Duhamel/Annapurna Pictures

The reality of two Americas means that there is a significant segment of the population for whom the idea of racism in policing is either difficult to grasp or fiction. That makes the telling of this story by someone like Ms. Bigelow vitally important, said Michael Eric Dyson, the scholar and activist. Her broad appeal can attract white viewers who might not otherwise go to see a movie about this topic, he said.

“This is a white woman telling the truth as much as she can on film about racial injustice in America,” said Mr. Dyson, a Detroit native whom Ms. Bigelow consulted on the movie. “That will resonate very powerfully with white folks. What better way to use your white privilege than to undermine it, raise questions about it, leverage it on behalf of black and brown people who usually don’t have a voice in the matter at all.”

Being true and authentic to the story, Ms. Bigelow said, meant relying on a concept she took from Mr. Boal, who is also white, when they first worked together on “The Hurt Locker” in 2009: film as journalism.

For Ms. Bigelow, creating “Detroit” involved practicing the discretion that journalists grapple with after police killings. Is that video of the young man bleeding out behind the steering wheel of his car too gruesome to air? What about the footage of the man being gunned down from behind as he runs from a police officer? Do we examine a victim’s criminal record, or an officer’s misconduct record?

These can be perilous tasks, as I learned the hard way when, in an effort to humanize Mr. Brown after he was killed in Ferguson, my description of him as “no angel” in an article overshadowed the sympathetic elements of his life.

Ms. Bigelow also found herself engaging in another basic journalistic practice: immersing herself in unfamiliar lives and experiences, and trying to make sense of them.


The bodies of three black teenagers being removed from the Algiers Motel in Detroit in 1967.

Associated Press

Without the rights to John Hersey’s book, “The Algiers Motel Incident” — his estate would not sell them — Mr. Boal and Ms. Bigelow based their story on extensive research. They studied contemporaneous news accounts and court records and interviewed people who were in and around the Algiers at the time. Mr. Boal said he was particularly moved by Larry Reed, a singer with a group called the Dramatics, who was in the motel during the incident and whose life was upended by it, and Melvin Dismukes, a black private security guard who had entered the motel with the police, and broke down in tears when he recounted the events to Mr. Boal.

“As a dramatist, I was interested in the struggle to survive that night and also to sort of, to piece an identity back together after that kind of trauma,” Mr. Boal said, adding that he consulted with black historians and scholars to maintain the authenticity and integrity of the story. “All I can do is try to be respectful and humble and recognize my shortcomings, and by the same token, use whatever influence I might have in Hollywood to do things that I think are meaningful.”

Although the filmmakers insist that they stuck to historical facts in constructing “Detroit,” they did have to sprinkle Hollywood dust on parts of the story because some details of what happened remain murky.

Some have criticized the absence of fully realized black women in the movie. (Jetmag.com asked of the movie’s trailer, “Why are black women missing”?) Others have questioned the depth of its characters and its effectiveness as a political tool. Charles Ezra Ferrell, the vice president for public programs at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, said he wished the unrest had been placed in better context.

“There had been a long trail of police violence against the black community prior to ’67,” he said. “They don’t even tell the history correctly in the beginning. So, therefore, if you don’t have a foundation of what caused that event, you see these as looters. That undermines the story significantly.”

But Mr. Ferrell and others praised Ms. Bigelow’s ability to make the raw, racist brutality inflicted upon black bodies up close and personal.


A scene from “Detroit.”

Francois Duhamel/Annapurna Pictures

As someone who choked on tear gas while covering protests in Ferguson, I found it easy to appreciate the us-against-them divide that the film depicts between the police and black people. In one scene, officers in riot gear initially rebuff Fred Temple (played by Jacob Latimore) when he tries to get past them to go to work. I could not help but think of the night in Ferguson when a line of police officers, trying to clear the streets, marched toward me and ordered me to go home, even though news media were allowed to stay. I had a press pass dangling from my neck, but I guess that did not matter to them when the person wearing it was a black man with dreadlocks.

To draw her actors into the chaotic moments from half a century ago, Ms. Bigelow withheld parts of the script from some until the last moment. That kept them guessing on important points, like who would die in the motel, which helped elicit real emotion and fear.

“We know how good of a storyteller Kathryn is,” said Algee Smith, who is from nearby Saginaw and plays Mr. Reed. “We see that she holds no punches in the way that she tells a story. She makes you feel like you’re in there. With this, the story has to be told in a certain way for people to connect. So it’s not about what color the person is shooting the film. It’s about who can tell the story the best.”

A day before the film’s world premiere here, Ms. Bigelow sat comfortably in a room in a downtown fire station turned boutique hotel, where the elevator walls are upholstered with caramel leather. It was a stark contrast to the boarded up swaths of Detroit, just minutes away, still suffering the effects of the 1967 unrest.

Ms. Bigelow makes no bones about the fact that she was an outsider trying to tell a story touching on some of the roots of Detroit’s pain. From the all-too-expected outcome of the trial of the police officers accused of the Algiers killings, to the way the officers concocted stories to justify the shootings, when the focus is not on who made the film, it is striking to see how the picture lives in the present day.

“As far as for the policemen now, I really don’t even think it’s too much different,” Mr. Dismukes said. “They handle themselves a little different because now, a whole lot of them got the body cams and stuff like that. But you still have your few violent policemen out there that just don’t give a rip about your rights.”

It’s on lessons like that where Ms. Bigelow, who says she’s more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it, wants the focus.

“If you don’t face the sort of, the travesties that are constantly recurring in this culture,” she said, “how are they ever going to change?”

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