“Police brutality” or “use of excessive force” seem like insufficient terms to describe what took place at the Algiers Motel in Detroit in July 1967. During a period of rioting and civil unrest in the city, a group of young black men, along with two young white women, were held captive and, according to many of these people themselves and other witnesses, physically abused and psychologically tortured by a trio of white cops over the course of many hours. At the end of that awful night, three of these young men were dead and one was in the hospital. The exact chronology of the night’s events was never clearly established. The accounts of surviving witnesses were inconsistent, which became a pretext for the entirely predictable not-guilty verdict eventually handed down to all three cops in court.
Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, written by her Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty collaborator Mark Boal, reconstructs that night at the Algiers Motel with the help of original reporting, creative license, and some inevitable conjecture, then jumps ahead abruptly to cover the legal and personal aftermath of the crimes. If it had to be given a genre classification, Detroit would be called a docudrama. Bigelow mixes archival news footage and real crime-scene photos with re-enactments so vivid and brutal they sometimes seem to convert the movie theater into the Algiers Motel: a place to be fled as soon as possible. Detroit runs nearly two and a half hours, and the viewer feels every minute, in both the good and bad senses of that phrase. It’s an exercise in clammy cinematic claustrophobia, a vision of law enforcement as organized sadism that is itself a sadistic experience to endure.
Another new film, the 100-minute documentary Whose Streets?, which opens Aug. 11 takes an entirely different approach to a tragically analogous sequence of events that took place almost 50 years later: the 2014 killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white police officer, and the months of street protests and community activism leading up to and following that officer’s nonindictment. Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, activists and first-time feature filmmakers from, respectively, South Central L.A. and St. Louis, have effectively crowdsourced their film, incorporating cellphone video taken during the actions and tweets from those observing and participating on the ground. (“I just saw someone die, OMFG” reads the chilling first tweet we see.)
Both Detroit and Whose Streets? move from a large-scale panoramic view of an urban community in crisis toward a more intimate portrait of a few of the individuals involved. But Whose Streets? is the more effective and emotionally powerful of the two, perhaps because it constructs its world from the ground up, not from the top down. This is another way of framing a fact that’s difficult to talk about (especially for a white critic) but important to note: The filmmaking team behind Whose Streets? is black, and the one behind Detroit is white. The question—a very live one at this moment in history—of whose story is whose to tell is raised in a stark fashion by the release of these two movies in successive weeks at a moment when the civil rights of people of color (including nonwhite immigrants) are as imperiled as they’ve been since the days of those Detroit riots. Just this week, the NAACP issued its first-ever national travel advisory for the state of Missouri, declaring it a risky place for black Americans to move about freely.
In the spirit of Whose Streets?’s grassroots, from-the-ground-up approach, I’d like to take on a discussion of both movies not with a big idea about racial identity or artistic freedom but with some midsize observations about how each film works to create character, tension, and a sense of place. Detroit opens with an introduction about the Great Migration animated in the style of the Harlem painter Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, elegantly done if a shade didactic. After that, we’re dropped into the midst of a tense summer evening unfolding in various places around the city: at an unlicensed after-hours joint known as a “blind pig”; at the Fox Theatre, where a showcase for Motown favorites and hopefuls is unfolding; and on a few street corners where discontent about a police crackdown is stoking new incidents of arson and looting. It takes about half an hour for the cast of characters to emerge. This is a large group whose numbers include Larry Reed (Algee Smith, the film’s breakout star), a lead singer for up-and-coming vocal group the Dramatics; his friend and manager Fred (Jacob Latimore), who’s trying to secure the group a recording contract; and Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a security guard who tries to keep the peace with the cops and finds himself caught up in the Algiers Motel nightmare.
Whose Streets? also takes a while to focus in on the four or five people whose stories we’ll follow over the course of a few years. There’s Brittany Ferrell, a nursing student and single mother who leaves school to throw herself into the Ferguson movement, then falls in love with a fellow female activist; David Whitt, a father of four who’s decided to make himself a one-man counter-surveillance unit, filming every police interaction he sees; and Tef Poe, a local hip-hop artist who finds himself in a position of leadership he never asked for thanks to his gift for passionate oratory.
I didn’t mind that either film took its time letting these individuals define themselves in the larger social context that surrounded them. In fact, the first hour of Detroit is by far the best part of the movie. But as soon as the audience begins to understand each of these main characters, Bigelow locks the whole lot into the death trap that was that night at the motel. After the cops’ violent head games begin, there’s dramatic suspense aplenty—enough to make your stomach churn—but little movement forward on the characterization front. The black characters become what the men in that motel were to their tormentors—vulnerable bodies to be used as needed. Of course, the “use” to which the film puts these characters is very different—Bigelow and Boal mean for us to identify and empathize, not demean and torment. But just as members of the audience will experience these scenes differently depending on their racial background and history, so the people behind the camera—and the screenplay, and the editing, and the production design—will create a different film from a different perspective depending on the lives they’ve led and the bodies they inhabit. The fact of the filmmakers’ whiteness can’t help but inflect their depiction of what is in essence an extended lynching. The trauma they portray is harrowing but oddly impersonal; we watch in horror as terrible things are visited upon the characters, but we remain somehow outside their point of view.
This is not meant as a prescriptive statement about who should be “allowed” to tell whose stories but as a description of how distinct an experience it can be to hear a story told by the people to whom it happened and is still happening. That sense of ownership and belonging is the source of Whose Streets?’s power, vitality, and even—an emotion that’s seldom if ever experienced in Detroit—joy. A hoarse cry for justice and an effective work of agitprop, Whose Streets? lets its real-life “characters” develop in ways the fictionalized real people of Detroit never do. Yes, we see them sobbing, screaming in protest, and being tear-gassed, but they also play with their babies and attend graduation ceremonies and talk about what it feels like to emerge from depression. They’re neither defined nor confined by victimhood. Our regard for these struggling but hopeful people grows in equal measure with our outrage at the injustices being done to them and countless others daily.
As Whose Streets? reminds us, the racial history and makeup of the institutions that perpetrate those injustices matter. So do the racial history and makeup of the industry that turns such painful historical events into movies, and of the publications that write about them. These are hard truths that white Americans need to own up to and act to remedy if we ever hope to make “black lives matter” into a truth too evident to require hashtagging.