I like movies.
I usually enjoy them, making an occasion out of each one I get to an actual movie theater to see. I celebrate with popcorn, diet soda, some candy. If I’m at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, I make an absolute pig of myself by ordering everything on the menu, from truffle popcorn to key lime milkshakes. I like being entertained. And I’m usually a fan of anything that’s put together well, and flashes before me on a big screen. I am what you might call “easy to please” when it comes to movies.
So in this month’s column, it’s difficult to discuss something unpleasant that happened to me at the movies recently because I am such a fan. But because the movie keeps showing up in my thoughts daily, and because what I would call the “dilemma” of the film keeps troubling me, there’s seems to be nothing else for it but to write about Kathryn Bigelow’s well-made call to conscience, Detroit. (Warning: There are spoilers below.)
I wish it were a movie I could heartily recommend, but I only made it through half of it, and the half I saw broke my heart in a thousand different ways and nauseated me, so I don’t see how I can tell you to run to your local movie palace and put your money down.
On the other hand, it is a movie you must see.
You may have read reviews (and I am not a movie reviewer and would never presume to be one) and already know what the movie is about: The 1967 Detroit race riots — some call it an uprising — and the police action surrounding the specific incident that occurred at the Algiers Motel on July 25, 1967. The movie steams into your bloodstream with all the heat and brutality of that awful summer, and even though I did not sit through it long enough to see, I later read three black men died and nine other people were savagely beaten, including two white women visiting their friends at the Algiers.
The upshot of the entire horror was that the police officers responsible went to trial and were acquitted of all assault and murder charges. I read later the acquittal made one of the by-standers vomit. I am sure had I stayed for the entire film, I would have done the same.
But you see, halfway through the movie — about half an hour after one of our friends left, whispering she could no longer take the brutality — I nudged against my friend Leba, who had taken me to the screening, and told her I had to get out of there, too, because I could no longer breathe. She and I caught a Lyft home, taking gulps of fresh cool evening air as soon as we burst through the theater doors onto Van Ness Avenue. I was so upset by the half of the movie I did see, I took a shot of Scotch when I got home. I still dreamed about it.
Kathryn Bigelow has genius in her, as can be seen from her award- winning The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, both intense, important films. And she shows brilliant skill in creating Detroit. The actors are stunningly good (I kept asking myself, how did she get them to become those people, do those horrible things?). And the story is, to say the least, engaging. But something happened to me watching Detroit that has rarely happened to me watching a film: The art of it became so real I felt fully enough immersed in it not only to witness it, but to be a victim of it. It was excruciating to watch the white cops behave like savages, and also to feel as if I were one of the people they had up against the motel wall. The movie made me feel done to, and I am reasonably sure that’s exactly the way Bigelow wanted me to feel.
I cannot decide if I hate or admire her for that.
What I do know is I confronted my own feelings of hatred and innate racism that night. And the realizations that came from those feelings? Well, they have not been pleasant. I hated those white cops, deeply hated them, yet I also felt anger and outrage at the black rioters who were destroying the streets. I understood why each discreet “mob” behaved as they did (the cops were no less a mob than the rioters), and I was enraged by it all.
My own fury made me ill.
So thumbs up or thumbs down on such a work of art?
Do you want your art to fearsomely ignite your body with all the good, bad, and ugly things you know and feel about life? Or do you want The Leggo Movie? I am not suggesting that a story told by emojis would satisfy you, nor should it, but how much self torture can an earnest soul take, when being confronted by those things that make us all too human? It’s a reckoning, for sure.
And up to you to decide.