In July 1967 serious disorders erupted between the police and the black population, following a police raid of the “Blind Pig”, an unlicensed after-hours club. That was the last straw. During the legendary Sixties the civil and social glue in the USA faced a hard time. The reasons are famous and proved by history (and in many ways still remains). bigelow

The US long hot Summer of 1967

The economic inequality, the decay of many quarters, the widespread poverty in the suburbs of big cities, Vietnam war, the fate of political unimportance of veterans who came back from the front, ethnic minorities’ institutional under-representation, the end of the New Frontier democratic project, the violent repression of progressive requests, the increasing racism.

Kathryn Bigelow, director of other movies, such as Strange Days and The Hurt Locker, was inspired for this realistic and powerful film by the incidents occurred at Algiers Motel, which were so shocking to gain a particular symbolic value. Detroit, born from the third collaboration between Bigelow and the screenwriter Mark Boal, comes out on the 50th anniversary of the riots in the Motor City. 43 people died and almost 1,200 were injured.


The authority always tries to bridle the terms of reality

Before getting to the heart of the movie, we should make some considerations about the present. It is the middle of December 2017. The Trump administration, through an unofficial communication – as it used to be under Stalin – delivered during a meeting of the healthcare system officials, prohibits using seven words in the public health’s official documents: «fetus», «transgender», «diversity», «vulnerable», «entitlement», «evidence-based», «science-based». The Orwellian intervention on lexicon reveals the ultra-conservative desire to deny reality. In other words, it is the desire to build a reality of convenience, avoiding resorting to some terms, hence concepts, because they are not suitable for the consolidation of a particular view of the world. Many centuries ago nominalist philosophers understood that without an agreement on the name of things, you lose the grip on the thing itself.

Now the question is, which is the link between president Trump’s will and a movie on the USA in the 50s? The point is that Detroit is not only a movie which openly denounces racism and white predominance, but first it is a dramatic examination of the perverse dynamics of power. And power has always meant removal and mystification, today and yesterday.


At the Algiers Motel reality is simulated, but reality burst into

There are several moments in Kathryn Bigelow’s movie where actual racial conflict clearly arises. The city in the state of Michigan is burning. Police and the Michigan National Guard officers patrol the streets and arrest, shoot and someone overdoes it. A police officer, Krauss, does not hesitate to hit an alleged suspect in the back. The night comes and everything seems to calm down. Dismukes, a private guard, is called back to cope with looting. In the meantime, people of different origins and social backgrounds meet by chance at the Algiers Motel.

Greene, a Vietnam veteran; Larry and Fred, members of the R&B group Dramatics; looking for a record contract in Detroit; Julie and Karen two white girls (the only white people in the motel) and their friends, Carl and Aubrey. Images of urban violence burst into the closed rooms through the televisions. The atmosphere between the walls of the Algiers heats up. They all gather in Carl’s room to smoke weed and comment on the news. Carl has a cap gun and to impress the others he points it at a friend’s chest, pretending to be a white police officer. He pulls the trigger and the other falls to the ground as if he were dead. Was it just a bad joke or a provocative representation of reality?


In Detroit reality and fiction switch roles

When Carl points his gun with blanks at the National Guard aligned a few hundred yards away from him, the mirror breaks. From his point of view it is just a game, a way to frighten white people just as they frighten the black ones, a cold revenge with no serious intention to shoot. They are fake shot, but the police take it that they are real. The virtual peace at the Algiers Motel breaks into pieces. The hotel is like under siege, police officers burst into it and the massacre begins.

Reality imposes its poetic justice on fiction. Carl, the simulator, is the first who dies. The victim holds nothing in his hands, he is defenceless. To justify his death, Krauss, a racist cop and negative main character in the movie, put a knife close to him. Here the dialectic reversal is clear: fiction imposed by the authority comes back and demands to be the only actual reality. Unfortunately, the worst is yet to come. An obsessive question keeps echoing among the police officers’ screams: “Who was doing the shooting?” They only want to know this and, once they arrest the culprit, they will free the others. The truth is that this question must stay with no answer to let the horror happen. The research of the culprit is an excuse to let the events go in a certain direction.


“You should kill a nigger”

Kathryn Bigelow presents on the screen a cruel play of mirrors. The “men of law” put on fake executions to extort confessions from the people present. Demens, a weak police officer, is encouraged by Krauss, “you should kill a nigger”. “Nigger”, a term which brings with it a particular racial evaluation and a hierarchic interpretation of social relationships. Demens replies, “I don’t know about that”. And Krauss insists, “ Sure you do”. Demens does not understand well his colleague’s instructions.

What does “to kill” mean? Should he take his words literally? Or is it a code to interpret? Let us take his position. The police is looking for a gun that doesn’t exist, in case, what exists is just its simulacrum, a cap gun which no one will ever find. The victims’ desperate statements, “I don’t know anything”, allows the police officers to perpetrate anything in the name of the order. Roles are established a priori. The presence of two white women among a gang of “niggers” is outrageous (“Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves? You’re having sex with the niggers”, Krauss says to Julie and Karen), isn’t it? That black faces are in themselves guilty, aren’t they? The bullets shot from the windows witness what was already known, which is the suspects’ criminal behaviour, didn’t they? Demens is the actual interpreter of the fiction being carried out. He takes Aubrey in a separate room and, after having questioned him without receiving an answer, he killed him in cold blood.


If you cannot see it, it does not exist

The most important scene in the movie is Carl’s bullet-riddled body. Dismukes and a man of the National Guard led the girls to safety. Veteran Greene (accused by Krauss of being a pimp and not an actual veteran) and the two members of the group Dramatics, Larry and Fred, remains in the rooms at the Algiers. The police officers impose one condition: if they want to go home safe and sound they must say in front of them that they do not see any corpse lying on the floor. On the contrary, the words corpse, dead, body are omitted. “But you never talk about what you saw here… What do you see here? I don’t see ANYTHING” Greene and Larry give in to the extortion, while Fred does not and that’s why he pays with his life.

Here power is revealed in its evil banality. Only power can build up cages around reality, getting rid of evidence and concealing it because evident, whether they are acts incompatible with justice (Bigelow’s movie), or bans on elements of the language ideologically unaligned to the current governance (the censorship of the Trump administration in many domains). At the end of Detroit the policemen accused are acquitted. The judge accepts the defence’s case. During the statements in court none of the survivors prove to have actually seen what was happening in the rooms of the Algiers Motel. In the corridor, with the faces pressed against the walls, called one by one in the rooms during the killings, they couldn’t see. Kathryn Bigelow shows the paradox inside the act of seeing. There are no such things as neutral looks. The ones who hold the monopoly on power can manipulate even the vision of the object.


Any prohibition makes evident what it hides

In 2016 the Italian publishing house Codice translated in Italian Ta-Nehisi Coats’ book Between the world and me. The author is black and comes from Baltimore and the book is a kind of autobiography in the form of a letter written to his son. The focus of his thinking is the body. “And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy… The destroyers will rarely be held accountable”.

Black people’s body is an outrageous element in itself. The same concept is found in the Nigerian writer Igoni Barnett’s novel Blackass, where a Lagosian citizen lives Kafka’s experience of waking up white. The power can even try to play with names, cover our eyes in front of a crime, deny climate changes, avoid to talk about “fetus” or “evidence-based”, but… it cannot hide its intentions. Prohibition highlights the fear not to be able to face emergency, diversity, the unknown challenges that transformations in life bring with them. Reality can be manipulated, but only to a certain extent. There are unavoidable revolutions and unpostponable epochal changes. Who knows, perhaps one day a black man will become he President of the USA. Or is happened already?


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