Whose story to tell? 'Detroit' shows the perils of Hollywood confronting issues of race

Years ago, I left an advance screening of Independence Day listening to another critic complain about the movie’s racial and ethnic stereotypes.

I was baffled, so I asked him what he meant. He said Will Smith’s fighter jock conformed to the stereotype of the black man as athlete, and Jeff Goldblum’s mathematician adhered to clichés about the Jewish intellectual.

The next day, I interviewed Smith, who had a different perspective entirely. In fact, he talked about how much it meant to him to compete with A-list white actors for a lucrative and career-building job and win. He felt he’d made an important point — that black stars should be considered for roles that are not race-specific.

I bring this up to illustrate the complexities of race as it relates to Hollywood, where movies that engage the subject must juggle a volatile mix of political and cultural ingredients, all while managing the age-old conflict between art and — there’s no getting around it — commerce.

All of these come to bear on Detroit, the movie about  the 1967 race riots there and a particularly horrific incident in which three black men were killed while in the custody of white authorities.

Kathryn Bigelow (who won an Oscar for directing The Hurt Locker) has said she watched the Ferguson, Mo., riots and was moved to make a movie about police and racism. When writing partner Mark Boal found an interesting angle to the Detroit uprising of 1967, she jumped on it.

Immediately, social media questioned whether Bigelow, who is white, was the proper choice to direct (Boal is also white). Was this  “her story to tell?” A similar backlash has already surfaced in advance of Confederate, the proposed HBO series that imagines a contemporary South under Confederate rule, with slavery still legal. Though two of the show’s executive producers — The Good Wife veteran Nichelle Tramble Spellman and her husband, Empire alum Martin Spellman — are black, the two marquee creators, Game of Thrones‘ D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, are white and don’t have the best track record when it comes to race.

It’s worth noting that Bigelow was not pushing her way to the front of a line of directors eager to make this movie. In the 50 years since the riots, the roster of top-shelf directors champing to make the movie had, as far as I know, exactly one name on it: hers.

And that’s important, because without a star and/or director of clout advocating for a movie like Detroit, it’s probably not going to get made, not in partnership with a studio. The reason: Movies with subject matter this tough almost never make money.

As I told my boss last week, though I wished the movie well, Detroit was almost certain to perform dismally at the box office. People want Hollywood to confront difficult subjects like racism, but on Saturday night, they also want to see Girls Trip, or the new Spider-Man, or the new Halle Berry thriller.

Detroit lost to all of them. It grossed just $7 million, with the lowest per-screen average in the top 10 last weekend. Detroit cost $55 million to make and market, and its future as a money-maker looks bleak.

Camera icon Photo: Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures
“Detroit” director Kathryn Bigelow on the movie set.

The movie fizzled despite a tailwind of strong reviews — it scored nearly 90 percent on movie-review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, including some favorable responses from African American writers and commentators.

In the Daily Beast, Touré wrote that in Detroit, “the black point of view is privileged. My worldview is affirmed. My perspective is central. It feels empowering to have my perspective affirmed no matter what race the director is.”

Michael Eric Dyson, in the New York Times, wrote, “Some have questioned whether it was Ms. Bigelow’s story to tell, since she is white. Yet she has done what us black folk often demand white folk do: Take responsibility for your actions and a legacy of hate that is often silently transmitted.”

There was vigorous dissent also.

On RogerEbert.com, Angelica Jade Bastien said Detroit represents “the horror of white filmmakers taking on black history and the violence perpetuated upon black bodies with an unwavering eye yet nothing to say.”

On the Huffington Post, Zeba Blay wrote, “the images of violence in the film, designed to be visceral, in your face to expose and inspire outrage and disbelief, inspired nothing in me but pessimism and spiritual exhaustion. The violence isn’t shocking, it’s just sadly familiar, and that isn’t interesting or illuminating to me as a black viewer in 2017.”

As a white viewer and critic, I say Blay has a point. As I noted in my review, the movie turns into a grisly, unrelenting spectacle of racist brutality that documents events without elevating them as drama.

It also turns from a nimble ensemble piece to a horror movie dominated by the wrong character — Will Poulter’s smirking thug.

I think Bigelow made a mistake in the way she structured the movie, by focusing on Poutler’s character, but I’m loath to ascribe this to her race. Boal was inspired to write the story after meeting riot survivor Larry Reed, played in the movie by Algee Smith. I think you’re looking at a better movie if you follow Reed through the drama — the way The Hurt Locker followed Jeremy Renner through the war in Iraq, or how Zero Dark Thirty followed Jessica Chastain through the campaign to find and kill Osama bin Laden.

It was the success of those two movies that gave Bigelow, 65 and a 40-year veteran of Hollywood, the power and influence to tell just about any story she wanted. She drew on all of it to tell a story that meant something to her (one that I suspect she knew carried grave commercial risk).

There is something admirable — and also inevitable — in that.

I’m reminded of Elie Wiesel’s famous admonition about art and the Holocaust — any fictional story is by definition going to diminish the annihilating reality of the events. The imagination is no match for the unimaginable.

You can see the logic in that, and also the futility of it.

You will never stop storytellers from wanting to tell stories about the most significant events in modern human history, ugly or otherwise.

You can’t stop the artistic impulse.

And I don’t think you want to.