Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” is not an easy movie to watch. An hour is devoted to the brutal depiction of the 1967 Algiers Motel incident, in which racist police officers murdered several innocent black men — all while protests against police brutality dominated the streets. However, the film’s unflinching portrait of racism has a real-time resonance that could generate new conversations about the struggle to address these problems today.
However, as “Detroit” opens wide in theaters across the nation, it has already shown potential to impact something even bigger than a post-screening debate: legislation.
On July 20, Michigan’s longtime U.S. Representative John Conyers Jr. screened the movie in Washington D.C. for an event that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Detroit uprising.(He’s also a character in the film, played by Laz Alonzo.) In 2001, Conyers introduced a bill to establish the the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans, a far-reaching proposal to address racism in modern American society. Among its key aspects is a requirement that officers undergo new training to minimize racial profiling.
Conyers presented the film to bolster new efforts to pass the bill, which he continues to push along 16 years later. Bigelow was in attendance.
“There were many men and women from Congress in the audience,” she said in an interview. “There was this hope that the film could revise some momentum for that bill. I think that would be an extraordinary end game for this film.”
At the event, Conyers connected the dots between the events in the film and more recent challenges. “As we have seen from police-involved shooting incidents and Department of Justice investigations around the country, 1967 Detroit is being repeated every year still,” he said, according to a report in the Detroit News. “For this reason, I continue to pursue improving police relationships and accountability and criminal justice reform here in Congress.”
Bigelow, whose filmmaking took a sharp turn into journalistic advocacy with “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” sounded energized by her film’s capacity to address such issues. “Even just to be a part of that conversation is a great testament to the intentionality of this type of filmmaking,” she said. “It’s storytelling that can have an impact. It’s all about initiating a conversation.”
At the same time, the director is on the periphery of the issues addressed by “Detroit” in ways she can’t escape, and she hasn’t tried to wiggle away from them: She’s a white woman telling a story about black persecution. “I thought about it a lot,” she said. “I felt I wasn’t the right person to tell this story, but on the other hand, I had the opportunity to tell it.”
She felt like the Algiers Motel story spoke to a range of contemporary frustrations: Bigelow’s regular screenwriter Mark Boal brought her the project around the same time that Ferguson, Mo. came down with the decision to not indict the officer in the Michael Brown shooting. “[Algiers has] been shrouded in secrecy for so many years,” she said. “Hopefully, in bringing this story to light, a number of things may happen. Other stories may come forward, or a meaningful story about race may develop in this country.”
Bigelow turned to several African-American consultants while developing the project, including Henry Louis Gates and author Eric Michael Dyson, whose post-election book “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America” inspired her during the production. She said the final chapter made her cry. “I reread it far too often,” she said. “From my perspective, an imperfect one because I’m white, I think racism impacts everyone. I don’t anyone’s immune to that suffering.”
She was further encouraged by the response to “Detroit” at its world premiere, which took place at the city’s Fox Theatre, which is prominently featured early in the film as street rioting causes a performance to end early. “It was very meta,” Bigelow said. “We had quite a few people there who lived through the rebellion in 1967, and they were a little anxious to relive it. But they were relieved — at least as far as it was conveyed to me — to find that we got it right. There was a sense of a shared tragedy that they no longer had to carry in silence, and alone.”
She drew a sharp contrast to America’s current dialogue on race with other countries wrestling with the issue. “Think of South Africa — they have a very robust conversation about truth and reconciliation,” she said. “We don’t have that here. It feels like the race issue is relegated to a single community to fix. We all share responsibility towards its resolution or amelioration.”
“Detroit” is now playing in theaters nationwide.