For Detroit, How Black Boys Die Is More Interesting Than How They Lived

. September 1, 2017.
Detroit, directed by Katherine Bigelow, takes place during the Detroit Race Riot of 1967
Detroit, directed by Katherine Bigelow, takes place during the Detroit Race Riot of 1967

Detroit, directed by Katherine Bigelow, takes place during the Detroit Race Riot of 1967, incubated by an influx of Black workers from the South looking for work, causing working-class whites to be anxious about their job security. Despite Bigelow’s attempt to create an urgent and fresh narrative, Detroit covers two hours of a story that’s gut-wrenchingly and unfortunately familiar.

Beginning with a scene of cops breaking up a party at an unlicensed bar where 82 Black people are celebrating the return home of two Vietnam veterans. The cops take everyone outside, line them up against a wall, and commit the movie’s first instances of police brutality. As a crowd gathers to watch the scene, a bottle is thrown at a police officer, the riot starts and looting ensues.

An All-Too-Familiar Story

At the Algiers Motel, where the bulk of the movie’s story is told, three Black boys were killed by Detroit Police. Carl Cooper, age 17; Aubrey Pollard Jr., age 19; and Fred Temple, age 18 are remembered on screen with how they were brutalized and eventually killed. There’s no on-screen backstory or information on the families they left behind. There’s no sensitivity offered, no humanity that’s not bloodstained and screaming. The scene is exhausting to watch.

Bigelow, a white woman, doesn’t know how it feels to watch people who look like you killed by police. Bigelow obviously doesn’t get how devastating and terrifying the videos of Black people dying at the hands of police can be, which is likely why Bigelow included two hours of it, embellished with repeated references to “boy” and use of the n-word.

Black Lives Defined By Their Endings

I hoped something would shift during the film; that I’d see something new. Maybe the viewer would get some insight into the torn emotions of the Black security guard, played by John Boyega, who entered the Algiers Hotel., likely to try to calm the white cops. He offers them coffee as a goodwill gesture. He stops them from roughing up a Black boy on the street, but he can’t stop them from killing three teens and beating nine others. Perhaps movie patrons would see Black women, like Rebecca Pollard, the mother of Aubrey Pollard, whose stunned face covered the newspapers when her son’s killer went free. Instead, we got the all-too-familiar stories of Black Boys Who Die Violently.

It seems that for Detroit, and across other big screens, bullet holes are better suited than basketball games or backyard barbecues to define Black people’s lives — by their endings. Detroit had a chance to break out of the bloody box the media too often forces us into, instead, it exacerbates the perspective, reminding me more of how flippantly Black pain is portrayed for white audiences than of how bad racism is in America.

I already know racism is bad in America. I know, because I knew exactly what Trayvon Martin had in his pocket before I knew he wanted to be an astronaut. I know, because I know more about how three Black boys in the Algiers Motel died than how they lived.

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