Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, Detroit, is based on the events at the Algiers Motel in July 1967. Police forces tortured 9 people looking for a weapon that was never found, killing three Black men in the process. The film raises questions about the racial biases that might have prompted such viciousness and looks unflinching at the lack of humanity on display by police. Detroit also contextualises this incident within a broader framework. The riots that were underway in Detroit at the time of the Algiers Motel incident were prompted in response to the troubled relationship between the mostly-white Detroit Police Department and the city’s Black residents. But instead of prompting me to consider the divide between two groups of people — or even the prejudices of a few particularly sinister police officers — Detroit had me thinking a lot more about notions of institutional power itself.
Detroit is difficult to watch for many different reasons. The violence is extremely triggering, and unlike a lot of other films, there is no happy ending. But something else that made me physically squirm in my seat was witnessing Black characters make what I identified as bad decisions. Typically, movies like Detroit clearly define the good guys and bad guys in terms of innocence and guilt, respectively. The good guys never do anything wrong, and the bad guys do wrong things to the good guys. Fairly early on in the film I found myself quantifying what rioters and other civilians “deserved” based on their actions. Some of the rioting was unnecessary. Some of the characters shouldn’t have run. Carl (Jason Miller) surely shouldn’t have shot a toy gun into the air, prompting the police to come to the motel.
I judged these characters because they took actions that I wouldn’t take. As a Black woman, I have been very well-trained on how to engage with law enforcement. I know not to make sudden movements; to use a soft, non-threatening tone; to not do anything that can be read as resistance; to not do anything that draws their attention to me at all if I can help it. But these are acts of self-preservation, not good behaviour. I know that the police can and will harm me if they feel as though I’m not well-behaved enough. As a Black person, any engagement with the police requires a temporary suspension of my free will, right to self-expression, and safety. Knowledge of this simple fact supersedes any reflection of my own character. And this is the problem with our current criminal justice framework.
In theory, police enforce the laws and statutes that create consequences for wrong actions. If you commit a crime, a judge or jury decides your punishment based on those laws. The police are mediators that put people who have committed crimes in contact with the court system in order to hand down an appropriate punishment. The system itself is supposed to do the work. It’s not actually up to the police to give people “what they deserve.” And people who have to interact with the police have not yet forfeited their civil or human rights.
Unfortunately, this is not our reality. And ultimately, the questions Detroit brought up for me were: At what point did we decide that those in uniform have the right to beat and kill civilians based on actions they may or may not have committed, absent of the threat of violence? Is violence an inherent part of power? And most importantly, is it time for us to start thinking differently about it?