Why 'Detroit' is exploitation

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ANNAPURNA PICTURES
  • Annapurna Pictures

Danielle Eliska Lyle, a Detroit native, returned to the city to attend the premiere of Kathryn Bigelow’s film
Detroit. These are her thoughts.

While I admire Kathryn Bigelow's success in the industry and will continue to root for her, I had a hunch the film would be problematic. It was confirmed when the film’s development team — the writers, producers, and cinematographers — were invited on stage: Everyone was white, with the exception of Detroit native Michael Eric Dyson, who introduced Bigelow.

According to Bigelow, she came to town most likely for pre-production, met up with Dyson, and “drove around and looked at the city.’ What she saw “broke her heart.”

Driving around Detroit with a native that has been absent from the trenches of the city since the 1980s might have been a good start for anybody interested in telling the real story of the '67 Detroit rebellion. But given the void I felt in the film, Detroit’s black voices were neglected. The lack of any blacks on the development team didn’t help.

And, yes, I’ve seen screenwriter Mark Boal’s piece for Vulture explaining why he wrote Detroit. Boal attempted to explain away any flaws viewers may see, and to dodge questions whether his research was done with native Detroiters who lived through it. He reinforces his defense by pointing out that his research team included Bloomfield Hill’s David Zeman and journalist work from the late John Hersey.

But I believe it wasn’t enough. A lot of aspects of the film fell flatter than a two week-old opened can of Vernors. The opening’s animated sequence based on Jacob Lawrence’s migration series was dope, but the Great Migration started in 1916. A lot had happened between then and 1967. And the reason blacks were moving north weren’t just for job opportunities, alone. They were also escaping the south where white racists literally published bounty ads, calling for the lynching of black families that owned anything they felt they should’ve own instead. They were forced to drop everything and flee north. In Northern cities, such as Detroit, blacks thought they’d find freedom but instead were met with police brutality, harassment, redlining, and violence. The racism and mistreatment collected over decades.

As Peter Werbe said in a recent Metro Times article: “There were longstanding grievances. When that man threw that bottle at the cop, it wasn't just because he was a little pissed off. He was throwing a bottle because of slave ships and chains and whips and what have you that coalesced right in that moment.”

That’s the sort of statement we could have used in the opening. While I’m a fan of Jacob Lawrence’s work, I would have gladly traded that sequence for a taste of what Werbe described.

Another problem with the film are the characters. I care deeply about the ’67 rebellion and everything Detroit, and consider the history of Detroit part of my cultural DNA. We all want to connect with surrogate characters on the screen—it’s one of the reasons we all have favorite flicks. But the one-dimensional characters in Detroit left me wondering why I was watching the film. It was no doubt easier for Bigelow to tell the story of the two women in Algiers hotel — because Bigelow can see herself in those women.
But if there’s any message I’d like filmmakers to take away, it’s the importance of hiring people of color when developing films about people of color.

For example, I’m willing to bet the development team for the upcoming HBO show Confederate didn’t have one black producer or PR person in the room, because if they did, they would've been able to head off the backlash that ensued. I tried keeping an open mind when I heard the news, but, as with Bigelow’s Detroit, I feared the worst— given how in Game of Thrones, the only black people in this fantasy world are servants and slaves to the dragon queen. Yet, I try to give folks the benefit of the doubt because we are all growing. But if you’ve developed a show that’s literally about antebellum Dixie winning a war driven by racism, oppression, colonization, and murderers conquering land and people — you can expect trouble when black people aren’t in the room to school a room full of privileged white men on their blind spots.

I get it. People see through the lens they were born with. But you’ll never catch me writing a feature or television show that historically deals with strife between Ireland and Britain without having Irish and British people on my creative squad. I’d want to know a great deal about their stories, their historical roots and the emotions invested in the subject. If you don’t, it easily becomes exploitation.

To use another example from the world of visual arts: Dana Schutz. She had a show a year ago in Manhattan, Fight in the Elevator, commemorating Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Solange's private confrontation in an elevator. I was able to see Schutz’s work up close — her figurative, expressionistic work is well-known for its satirical, humorous, whimsical tendencies, as described in her artist statement.

So imagine my surprise when I saw Dana's painting of Emmett Till at the Whitney Biennial. Open Casket felt like a slap in the face because there’s no parody in Till's brutal murder by white supremacists in 1955. You don't have to be black to see that. Emmett’s mother Mamie Till allowed photographs into the media in an effort to bring Emmett’s murderers to justice. Schutz refuses to discuss the “why” of her painting and when she did say something in the very beginning, it was clear she did not amply research Till’s story and had her facts screwed up. Furthermore, I don't know of any prolific black painters who have the desire to re-create that image. The picture is forever branded in our brains already.

I felt the same sort of misuse of controversy in Detroit. And so did a lobby of full of people who walked out before the film was finished.

What’s worst of all is what might have been done if a real spirit of inclusion had prevailed, giving voice to those who are heard the least. Despite Bigelow and Boal’s grand intentions, Detroit represents a monumental failure.

Detroit was yet another example of “missing the mark” and strengthens my conviction — we must un-gentrify Hollywood. We cannot afford to be tone-deaf to other cultures, especially in the times we are living in today. It is our responsibility to do the extensive research in order to make sure we get the story right.


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