NYT Can’t Quite Forgive White Female Kathryn Bigelow for Making Black Movie ‘Detroit’

August 5th, 2017 9:48 PM

New York Times reporter John Eligon talked to acclaimed movie director Kathryn Bigelow about her new provocative movie “Detroit,” based on a real police incident in the racial powder-keg of Detroit in the summer of 1967: “A White Director, the Police and Race in ‘Detroit.’” Posted Wednesday, it is scheduled to appear in this Sunday’s edition, under the headline “A Black-and-White Issue.”

Ms. Bigelow, the director of “Zero Dark Thirty,” is in her sweet spot when transforming real life into high art. But with “Detroit,” she had to wrestle with how far to push reality -- how to convey the real-life horror of racism, without exploiting black trauma. “It’s really a question of how do you humanize and how do you bring to life a situation,” Ms. Bigelow said. “I suppose you use a personal judgment, I guess.”

Eligon landed a left jab in the second paragraph:

Ms. Bigelow’s nonfictional judgment has earned her scorn in the past -- most notably criticism that she gave false, misleading credit to the role that torture played in capturing Osama bin Laden.

Now with “Detroit,” this Oscar-winning filmmaker could be facing her most ambitious, and contentious, project to date. She is a white woman from Northern California telling a story of the black experience in civil rights era Detroit, which Ms. Bigelow said was not lost on her. It certainly was not lost on her cybercritics, who from the start were quick to wield billy clubs full of skepticism over whether she had erased the role of black women during the unrest in Detroit or had the cultural pedigree to convey a story of black oppression.


If the time is right for this movie, opening wide on Friday, Aug. 4, after a limited release, it is also daring. Detroiters, coming out of the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy, are touchy over how their city’s narratives are told, whether it be the jaded tales of blight or the glowing renaissance stories that somehow overlook those in the black majority being left behind. And more broadly, we are in a moment of heightened scrutiny over how black Americans are treated by the police and how they are portrayed in films, books and news coverage.

The reality of two Americas means that there is a significant segment of the population for whom the idea of racism in policing is either difficult to grasp or fiction. That makes the telling of this story by someone like Ms. Bigelow vitally important, said Michael Eric Dyson, the scholar and activist. Her broad appeal can attract white viewers who might not otherwise go to see a movie about this topic, he said.

Continuing the noxious racial victimology, even a favorable mention of Bigelow managed to reduce her to a creature of “white privilege.” 

“This is a white woman telling the truth as much as she can on film about racial injustice in America,” said Mr. Dyson, a Detroit native whom Ms. Bigelow consulted on the movie. “That will resonate very powerfully with white folks. What better way to use your white privilege than to undermine it, raise questions about it, leverage it on behalf of black and brown people who usually don’t have a voice in the matter at all.”


Some have criticized the absence of fully realized black women in the movie. (Jetmag.com asked of the movie’s trailer, “Why are black women missing”?) Others have questioned the depth of its characters and its effectiveness as a political tool. Charles Ezra Ferrell, the vice president for public programs at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, said he wished the unrest had been placed in better context.

Eligon doesn’t bother asking if any black women were involved in the actual incident (there weren’t). Next he set up a real-life "us-against-them divide" like the movie, with himself in the starring role.

As someone who choked on tear gas while covering protests in Ferguson, I found it easy to appreciate the us-against-them divide that the film depicts between the police and black people. In one scene, officers in riot gear initially rebuff Fred Temple (played by Jacob Latimore) when he tries to get past them to go to work. I could not help but think of the night in Ferguson when a line of police officers, trying to clear the streets, marched toward me and ordered me to go home, even though news media were allowed to stay. I had a press pass dangling from my neck, but I guess that did not matter to them when the person wearing it was a black man with dreadlocks.

Times Hollywood reporter Brooks Barnes also let readers know he was “woke” with a dig at Bigelow and her movie in his box-office round up last week:

While certainly solid, the “Detroit” turnout was not sizzling. Ms. Bigelow’s film has received ecstatic reviews over all, but a large part of the conversation so far has focused on the appropriateness of a mostly white filmmaking team tackling such a painful moment in African-American history. “Detroit,” starring John Boyega and Anthony Mackie, arrives nationwide on Friday.

And Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham, on the latest episode of their Still Processing New York Times blog, recorded on Thursday, got moralistic on the very idea of white people making black art without permission.

Morris: So, you’ve got that, and then you have this question of whether or not Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, a white woman filmmaker and a white male screenwriter, whether they should have made Detroit, which is set during the 1967 Detroit riots and features a predominantly black cast -- although you need racist police officers, so they’re played by white people....A critic at rogerebert.com essentially said that this movie was a travesty but not for the reasons portrayed in the film, but because they never want to see a white gaze on black pain again, sparking this debate about who gets to make what film and whether or not Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal had the right to make this movie to begin with, or would it have been in better, more capable hands, I’m using air quotes here, “capable hands” in the hands of a black director and a producer.

Jenna Wortham didn’t appreciate being made to feel sympathetic toward policemen trying to stop looters and rioters, while Morris instantly likened them to the KKK.

Wortham: And so, when you’re doing that, capped within a larger film about, that’s trying to take down or eradicate, or throw attention to, or throw a light on police brutality, when you watch the police going through Detroit under siege, you’re kind of worried about the police’s safety. And so, when you find yourself--

Morris: Oh, the D.W. Griffith, Birth of a Nation trick where you’re rooting for the KKK--

Wortham: You know what I’m saying?

Morris: --to stop those pesky, awful, demonic, mutant, dehumanized slaves.