On Detroit

Robocop Classified“Motherfuck a Robocop.”

When I first heard Dopehead blurt this in late 2013 I didn’t know if he was dismissing the remake arriving the following spring, or the upcoming statue, or the entire series,  but I knew why he picked Robocop in particular.

The original Robocop  tells the story of Murphy, a victim of corporate exploitation of the working class. Caught in the crossfire between crime and crony capitalism, Murphy morphs from dead cop to blue collar cyborg, rising from the post-industrial detritus to take back his city. The film is remembered for its gore and dark humor, but I’m always struck by its cinematography. Paul Verhoeven frequently employs a POV shot that shows the world through Murphy’s eyes. Wired by data and directives, Murphy sees Detroit through a glitchy interface, his entire sensory experience mapped and coded in deference to the law. The film mourns the agency that Murphy loses as a result of his mechanization, insisting that this augmented reality, a cop literally restrained by the law, is a tragedy. The man beneath the machine is the real protector, not the law, the movie exhorts repeatedly.

Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit reproduces that mechanized interface and unplugs the human. Procedural to a tee, Detroit plunges into the 1967 Detroit riots with the cold distance of a drone. Flitting between crowds, buildings, and bullets, Detroit trades the empathy of most historical fiction for the clarity (or rather, the pretense of clarity) of modern surveillance. Bigelow’s eye is sharp but disengaged, zooming in and out of scenes of violence with a steely, inhuman precision. In her depiction of policing, a cop’s adherence to the law is a tragedy for an entirely different reason. Rather than constraining cops, law unleashes them, irradiating them with autonomy and power.

Much has been written about Bigelow’s decision to condense the chaotic sprawl of a riot into the organized terror of policemen torturing and killing the residents of the Algiers Motel. Detroit exploded for a host of reasons over those five days, and police abuse is only a single factor, the movie’s detractors note. This is true. Impoverishment, redlining, segregation, overcrowding, wage stagnation, and racialized job scarcity existed alongside the racism of the Detroit Blue. And Bigelow’s nods to these other factors do them little justice in terms of narrative or even comprehension. Detroit is certainly not a movie that will teach you about the history of Detroit or the year 1967 or anything.

But it will make you see a black body under a police state. Despite having a central cast, Detroit doesn’t really have characters. Its subjects are constantly depersonalized, their faces obscured, their clothes removed, their stories clipped.  It traffics in brutal, permanent reversals: the site of a welcome home party for two black Vietnam vets gets raided by cops and set aflame; an unarmed looter gets shot by a cop and dies under a truck; that same cop gets collared by internal affairs and then sent right back into the streets; a fake gun is fired out a window as a harmless act of resistance and is received as a declaration of war. There’s a  systematicity to all these reversals and there is never any doubt or ambiguity about their logic. The law always moves in one direction, with one force, toward one object, black bodies breaking in the northern breeze.  

The objectification of black bodies in Detroit isn’t dramatic. Wails and screams and groans spill out, but the violence isn’t pointed. No sweeping score or shots of troubled onlookers or Common raps are employed to ennoble the struggle against tyranny. Black pain is simply there, cops and security guards and National Guardsmen exchanging winces but never balking. Never. To watch Detroit is to confront the utter normalcy of black pain, to breathe the logic that inflicts it. The scenes at the Algiers Motel have been likened to torture, and yes, literally those victims were tortured. But cinematically Detroit doesn’t treat this as torture and that’s its skill. It treats black pain as logic, as the final product of a systemized domination of black lives. People are right to question the Algiers Motel Incident as a microcosm of the Detroit riots, but at its best Detroit isn’t making that claim. Its central claim is that police overreach is an inevitable result of systems—of law, of seeing, of thinking, of judging—that codify racism.

In the aftermath of lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan, Hannif Willis-Abdurraqib wrote, “It’s vital that we look at a place as more than just the violence that has been done to it.” I love that line, and Detroit violates that edict, but I think it works because its gaze is unflinchingly honest. There’s an inherent lack of agency in choosing to tell a story so impersonally, so I wouldn’t fault any viewer for initially feeling that Detroit is constricted. But consider how most movies and shows, across time, zero in on agency as the locus of change.

From Selma, to Crash, to 12 Years a Slave, to The Wire, to The Butler, to Straight Outta Compton, to The Help, to Glory, to Narcos, to Dear White People, to The Battle For Algiers, our dramatizations of oppression and resistance are full of charisma and perseverance and cunning. These are the traits of individuals.

These individuals might represent collective conflicts, but the focus is inevitably on the battle, not the war. For some stories this works, but all battles aren’t pivotal. Tiny victories are vital and seeing them is thrilling, but what if they don’t add up to anything meaningful? What if it’s just as vital that we look at a place as exactly the violence that has been done to it? What will we see? Who will we see? What will be the locus of change?

Detroit doesn’t settle on agency. It’s more concerned with rationale. It asks us why police have so much power. It asks why something like the Algiers Motel Incident can even happen. It questions how citizens can be detained and tortured not just by a few rogue cops but by their fellow community members and the National Guard and state police. It asks why relative strangers would endure torture instead of yielding to police demands? What binds these tacit agreements—both those in favor and against black life—together? How is this normal?

Detroit doesn’t answer these questions, nor does it provide the strongest possible foundation for asking them (black women are also victims of police terror, as Angelica Bastien has duly noted; and pain has consequences, as K. Austin Collins notes), but it knows why they go unasked. It looks at racism collectively, as an aggregate system empowering some and depriving others. It’s not the best story, but it’s a riveting vista.

Detroit ends with a broken singer, Larry,  retreating to gospel for sustenance. Robbed of his best friend’s life, artistic inspiration, and of justice, Larry visits a church and sings to his community. It’s not clear whether religion will restore him, but there’s no uncertainty about why or how he became a broken man. Instead of delivering justice, the legal system absorbed his pain and reduced it to the tepid neutrality of testimony, his agency turned against him and his torturers acquitted. As his voice ascends toward the rafters, there’s no doubt who the enemy is.

Robocop ends with a CEO being shot out of a window.

No one has said that Detroit is Robocop, but its reception, that quiet clamor for neatness and character arcs and resolution, reminds me of an anecdote from Francesca Borri’s Syrian Dust:

“And so I hang out at the Ozsut [Cafe]. Which is a curious place. Only foreigners and Syrians. Because by now everyone knows that only we journalists come here, and so the others are all Syrians. They sit there with their banana cake, a slice of apple, pie, at the table next to yours, and you study, write. At some point one of them leans over your table, from behind, and tells you: ‘I have a child soldier.’ Like that, in your ear. He says: ‘And he’s the son of a shabia! Do you want the son of a shabia?’ he asks you. ‘No one has him.’ And the journalists, especially the ones who spend one week in Syria, one week in the Congo, who when the war in Libya starts again say, ‘Awesome!’ the journalists say: “Do you have a suicide bomber too? I need a suicide bomber, possibly drunk.’ ”

Sometimes the truth don’t rhyme.