Although I try to avoid discussions of films before I’ve had a chance to see them, it’s not always possible. Especially when it’s a film from which there is a lot expected, and it opens in the U.S. three months before it opens in Australia.
That happened in 2017 probably with a number of films, but I’m thinking of two in particular it was hard to avoid, both of which relate to race relations. (I’ll try not to speculate on why movies about race relations are delayed three months in Australia.)
The first was, of course, Get Out. By the time it finally released in May, I knew a lot about the movie, even though I’d avoided watching the trailer and even though I didn’t have a clue about what the movie is actually “about.” (Which, ironically, led in part to my initial disappointment with it – I was expecting something more realistic than what the movie ultimately had in store for me. The movie was elevated significantly for me on a second viewing.)
The second was Detroit, which finally made its way to Australian theaters in November, after an August release in the U.S. A lot more was expected of this movie than Get Out before it was released, as Get Out was largely unheralded, becoming an instant word-of-mouth hit. After The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, people were practically stalking Kathryn Bigelow’s next movie, having tabs on what was called “Untitled Detroit Project” for at least a year before its release.
By the time it did hit Australian theaters, I did not even prioritize seeing it in that format, given that I’d already heard it was a big disappointment to everybody. I also knew that with its August release date in the U.S., I’d be able to rent it from iTunes before my list closed.
Which is precisely what I did last night.
And you know what, I like this movie. I don’t love it, but I think it’s a good movie. I was gripped by the genuinely shocking material, and I felt like Bigelow gave it shades and nuances I would not necessarily have expected. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay it is that I started it after 9 p.m. and wasn’t really at any risk of falling asleep, despite its two hour and 20 minute run time. I was involved the whole way.
But I couldn’t help but wonder if my personal take on the movie was unduly hampered by knowing what the popular take on it was. Namely, that a) it documents a bunch of shocking/violent behavior without really drawing a message from it, and b) it’s a story that its director does not necessarily have the right to tell.
I may have reached these conclusions myself, but knowing that others had already reached them made it a lot more difficult to judge that in a vacuum. I came in knowing those things, so was looking for them every step of the way.
The issue of who has the right to tell a particular story is a thorny one. I’m against the notion that certain people simply cannot tell certain stories, because I think anything is possible if you approach it sensitively, having done your due diligence. That said, did you know that the person who was originally planning to make the biopic of Malclom X was Norman Jewison? That it ended up in Spike Lee’s hands – and that the resulting film was a masterpiece – was a relief for all involved, I imagine, including myself, to the extent that I’m “involved.” (Don’t worry, Mr. Jewison, you made one of my all-time favorites in Jesus Christ Superstar.)
Bigelow has established her bonafides by making films that ask difficult questions about our institutions, and she’s already credibly addressed the issue of racism in police departments in Strange Days. Of course, that was a small if important part of that film, which was essentially a genre movie. Detroit not only makes the movie all about that, but it purports to adopt the African American perspective, which is slightly more problematic.
Still, watching this film, I can’t identify a single moment that seems tone deaf in some way, or like the work of someone who is not black. I suppose that’s really what you want in a movie that tries to reckon with “The Black Experience,” that there’s no part of it that reads as clearly non-black. For some people, the fact that Bigelow is not black will be a stumbling block regardless of how deftly she does it.
I don’t want to get too sidetracked here, but any time someone makes a movie where a significant percentage of its characters are from another race, you try to identify how successfully they’ve adopted the perspective of that other race. Get Out might be an interesting example in the opposite direction, or so I thought after my first viewing. While there was no doubt that Jordan Peele had an innate understanding of the characters who had a race in common with him, I must admit I wasn’t sure about his realistic grasp on the white characters. The second time, of course, I got that it was not supposed to be realistic. Different movie when you watch it that way.
A really interesting example of that in 2017 is Mudbound, directed by a black woman, Dee Rees. The story is split almost equally between black and white characters – almost. Interestingly, the balance is shifted in favor of the white characters in this one. At the center of that movie are characters played by Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund, one black and one white, and they have families of about equivalent size as supporting characters. However, there seems to be a lot more in the way of subplots for the white family than the black, which also creates the impression that Rees is a bit more in touch with those characters than the black ones. I’m not sure what to say about that and I think now I really am getting sidetracked.
Anyway, the second question – or, I guess, the first question, in terms of how I presented them above -- is also a tricky one. What lesson should we, can we, take from a movie like Detroit? Is it enough just to show awful, reprehensible racism at work, without giving us a specific nugget of truth we’re supposed to glean from it? I suppose the movie is meant to show us how far we have not come since then, but it doesn’t make either explicit or implicit connections to today in the text of the film, leaving it as something of a head scratcher as what our takeaway is supposed to be. This happened in Detroit then; this happens in Ferguson now. Is that really all the movie is supposed to be saying? It doesn’t feel like enough.
And yet I don’t know if that would have been my conclusion had the discussions I’d consumed of this movie not planted that thought in my brain. I was unable to form my own take on this material because it was already formed for me. I could have avoided discussions of this film for some time, if I’d tried, but probably not the five months between when it hit theaters and when I finally saw it. And practically speaking, I couldn't really have because I'd be dying to know why people were not considering this an Oscar frontrunner.
But maybe without that take, I would have thought of this as a lacerating portrait of an America that has not changed as much as we’d like to believe it has. Kathryn Bigelow does not sensationalize these portraits she makes. She just presents them and lets the outrageous details speak for themselves.
And in a country trying to grapple with, and heal from, its own racism, maybe that kind of hopeless factuality, without a silver lining, is not enough.