The arrogance of 'Detroit'

The arrogance of 'Detroit'

When allies overstep their bounds


I really, really wish I could endorse Detroit. I would love to vote for it with my ticket stub and rally others to do the same. I would love to watch it, dissect it, discuss it. 

I wish I could shout my praise for a movie that so bravely tackles one of the most difficult and divisive issues in American history.

But I can’t bring myself to cheer for yet another film about racism helmed exclusively by white people. 

Kathyrn Bigelow is a phenomenal director. Mike Boal is the fantastic writer who has penned most of her projects. But they are both white. And so was the cinematographer. And all of the producers. 

Not a single black person had any significant creative control behind the camera.

I’ve already seen criticism on Twitter about this being another example of exploiting the drama of slavery or the civil rights movement for Oscar bait. I’m not the first to comment on this trend of reducing the complex history of African Americans to their tragedies. As producer and actress Issa Rae once noted, “We don’t get to just be boring.”

I sincerely hope that exploitation isn’t Kathryn Bigelow’s intention, and Mike Boal certainly seems to have a personal connection with the material. But there’s one truth we can’t ignore: It’s arrogant of them to think they have the ability or the right to tell this story.

Please hear me. This has nothing to do with their abilities as filmmakers. This has everything to do with the million tiny subtleties missing from their personal experiences. 

White privilege will always be a factor, no matter how “woke” you aspire to be.

The day I watched Moonlight forever convinced me of the power of a black director telling a black story. I had seen plenty of movies with a similar plot line — disadvantaged black boy lives hard life and later finds redemption (or not)— but director Barry Jenkins dropped me into a completely different world. Everything looked familiar, but for an hour and 51 minutes I was transported into a plane of reality I never knew existed in America. He imparted a wordless understanding no white director could have captured.

I don’t say any of this to discourage allies. I’m still glad Bigelow and Boal made this movie. It’s already challenging people and spurring discussions about something we’ve waited far too long to confront. And sadly, most white people only pay attention to white voices. So Detroit will do its part.

But I’m still deeply disturbed by their lack of humility and respect. At the very least, they could have involved a black writer, but they didn’t. I see a huge missed opportunity here. 

If they cared about this issue — if they really cared about telling the truth — they would have found the right person to tell this story and given them the resources, support and platform to do it.

Allies, please take this rebuke gracefully: We’re not equipped for every story.

Some stories are not ours to tell.

Sometimes the best thing we can do as allies is speak up. More often than not, the better thing to do is take ourselves out of the spotlight. 

Shut up. Listen.

Hush the crowd, so others can be heard.