‘Detroit’ and George Floyd - How Kathryn Bigelow's film reflects our racist present
Everybody knows the news - George Floyd was suffocated by a police officer in Minneapolis on Monday because he was caught in possession of a counterfeit $20 bill. Unnecessary doesn’t begin to describe it. But it’s the first of many cases. Philando Castile in 2016, Jocques Clemmons in 2017, among many others: Statista reports that a total of 698 people of colour were shot between the years of 2017-2020. Mapping Police Violence says that people of colour are 3x more likely to be killed by police than white people. The statistics prove a contemporary fact - #BlackLivesMatter is more relevant now than ever.
Victims of injustice - Philando Castile (left), Jocques Clemmons (2017) and George Floyd (2020)
However, this is a film blog, not a political broadcast - what does cinema have to say about these matters? Well, cinema has a particular way of capturing our attention. It can draw us into worlds and make us feel what the on-screen characters feel as they're in close proximity to us. It’s a personal, focused experience that embeds imagery into our brain. Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow’s period crime drama set during the 1967 12th Street Riot, achieves all of these while spotlighting the racial tension between the police and the black community.
If we’re going to mourn for George Floyd, we need to understand how it feels to exist in a world where a white cop could decide that this isn’t your day. I believe that Detroit is a chance to experience that and to reflect. Let us look at key sequences to elaborate on why.
The act of violence
Detroit, first and foremost, is a retelling of the Algiers Motel incident, in which a white cop, David Senak (played by Will Poulter) led the Michigan State Police, Detroit Police and National Guard to the motel under the belief that a group of innocent black individuals were in possession of a sniper rifle, using it to target officers. The truth of it is that the group were firing off blanks while playacting, imitating police violence against people of colour. Bigelow shows this just before the police intervention.
The heart of the film is the violent interrogation of these individuals by the police. We see Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) shot by Senak while running for fear, with Senak planting a knife to absolve himself of the crime. We see Lee Forsythe (Peyton Alex Smith) beaten and then given a knife, taunted to retaliate. A soldier is asked if he ‘wants to kill one?’ as he then grabs a suspect enthusiastically. All of this happens while black private security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is unable to intervene after hearing all of the commotion from across the street.
Bearing witness to a terrible crime - Melvin (pictured) finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time
Bigelow captures all of this in handheld close-ups, without music. Every punch, every shot, every racial slur echoes throughout the motel. We’re meant to feel like we’re there and we can’t intervene in this historical event: we’re just meant to watch, like Melvin. Therefore, what does this scene tell us?
Firstly, the fact that there was never a sniper rifle is indicative of the impulsive nature of police violence. As with George Floyd, before the victims have even had a chance to prove themselves innocent, the police have taken fate into their hands. The only defence the victims are given is one that’s practically wanted: retaliate, give the police a reason to act.
Secondly and more importantly, Bigelow never cuts away from the scene so that we’re forced to stick to the action. We have to watch it unfold, whatever the outcome, and that terrifies us. Filmgoers fear for uncertainty; it’s what makes horror movies so effective. Substitute this for the real world and we can ever so slightly put our feet in the shoes of those who have actually suffered, like George Floyd.
The lack of justice
While there’s always uncertainty on the side of the victims of racial violence, it’s ninety-nine per cent certain that guilty police officers will escape justice [see Mapping Police Violence]. Detroit brings this to our attention by showing the trial hearings that immediately followed the incident. The verdict? Senak and the other accused officers are free to walk, not guilty of any crimes, as proclaimed by an all-white jury.
The fact that we see the brutal violence first hand for an hour of the movie, serves to add weight behind this punch in the gut. Bigelow wants us to feel frustration: for such an extended scene of emotional and physical torture, film narrative demands payoff, which reality refuses to give in Detroit. It’s just not how it works in the real world.
How does this relate to George Floyd? While it’s hard to accuse anyone of not delivering justice yet as it’s so early on, can we really expect the right verdict? Detroit may show us the past but the actions depicted in the film are happening still. Floyd was choked to death for a falsified cheque, while the victims in Detroit were shot for letting off a toy gun that was mistaken for a sniper rifle. It’s the same story over and over.
How can we fix that story? The film reminds us that change doesn’t just come in the act: it comes in the delivery of justice. Outside of the courthouse in Detroit, one man argues that “Police criminality be treated the same way as any other form of criminality”. Is there another more relevant statement right now? Crime isn’t determined by colour - it’s determined by facts, and the fact is that George Floyd was murdered. Let there be justice. #BlackLivesMatter.