PHILADELPHIA — The groan, when it came, was swift, the pain behind it palpable. At a curators’ roundtable at the BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia last weekend, the subject was gatekeeping. Who decides what stories get told? Who decides who gets to tell them? When it comes to stories rooted in the African diaspora — the focus of BlackStar, now in its sixth year — how have moving images in mainstream culture contributed to external bias and internalized self-loathing? Why is a particular story that transpired during the 1967 riots being called “Detroit,” as if one specific, if admittedly monstrous, episode can fairly represent the far more complex events during which it took place?
It was at this question, posed by scholar and curator Dessane Cassell, that the collective groan went up in the packed conference room at the Institute of Contemporary Art. “Detroit,” in which director Kathryn Bigelow dramatizes the murder of three black teenagers at the hands of white policemen during the titular city’s 1967 uprising, has been hailed by many critics (including this one) for plunging viewers into an event that crystallizes white supremacy and impunity at their most pathological. But for many others — including those among the filmmakers, programmers and viewers who attended BlackStar — “Detroit” presents yet another dispiriting example of a white filmmaker undertaking self-examination and catharsis using the spectacle of anguish, suffering and desecration of the black body.
That sense of disappointment, even betrayal, has also pervaded the reaction to “Confederate,” HBO’s planned revisionist-history project positing an America in which the South won the Civil War and slavery still exists. Produced by a team headed by two white men, the series has come in for excoriation by observers who noted that, in addition to being rooted in Hollywood’s foundational fascination with the Lost Cause myth (celebrated in everything from “The Birth of a Nation” to “Gone With the Wind”), “Confederate” is predicated on common but false assumptions about how history still inscribes present-day reality. As Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote in the Atlantic, “Something ‘Confederate’s’ creators don’t seem to understand [is that] the war is over for them, not for us. At this very hour, black people all across the South are still fighting the battle which they joined during Reconstruction — securing equal access to the ballot — and resisting a president whose resemblance to Andrew Johnson is uncanny.”
On their surface, the debates swirling around “Detroit” and “Confederate” have to do with white artists telling black stories. When it comes to “Detroit” specifically, how can white artists presume to make work about black history, even though they lack firsthand experience with the meaning of those stories and images to the black community? As Bigelow told me during an interview last month, “Am I the perfect person to tell this story? Absolutely not. My impetus was feeling that this is too important of a story not to tell.”
Consistent with her career-long fascination with intensely subjective violence, visceral conflict and a willingness to dispense with conventional narrative, Bigelow fashioned “Detroit” as part action, part horror and part procedural, resulting in what Bigelow herself called an “unwieldy spiral” rather than a straightforward historical drama. For many, including plenty of black viewers, the confrontational immediacy and grievous relevance of “Detroit” justify Bigelow’s risky aesthetic choices. For others, the film hews to the “tragic arc,” as one BlackStar participant put it, that too often defines how African Americans have been depicted, often at the hands of well-meaning white artists.
I stand by my initial impression that “Detroit” is a masterful use of cinematic language to burrow into and illuminate one of the most hidden recesses of America’s racist past. And I completely understand the dismay of “Detroit’s” critics, who take issue with both Bigelow’s experimental approach and iconography they equate with torture porn and voyeurism.
In fact, one can find an eloquent distillation of those complaints in the new documentary “Whose Streets?,” about the protest movement that began in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 after Michael Brown was shot to death by a white police officer. Coincidentally, it was Brown’s death, and the failure of a grand jury to indict the man who killed him, that inspired Bigelow to make “Detroit” specifically about abuse of police power. And at many junctures, the echoes between “Detroit” and “Whose Streets?” are uncanny, be they in images of militarized law enforcement or people taking action after decades of being dismissed, demonized and unheard.
But one moment in “Whose Streets?” stood out in particularly sharp relief — especially in the midst of the “Detroit” debate — when, midway through the film, Ferguson activist David Whitt sees that a neighborhood memorial to Brown is being dismantled, with local news media looking on. “Don’t set that camera up, dawg,” pleads Whitt, charging out of the apartment he’s renting just steps away from where Brown was killed. “I live here.”
As a vigilant caretaker of the street-corner shrine, Whitt understandably objects to Brown’s memory being erased with callous disregard for his still-grieving family and friends. But it’s the presence of the cameras — the mainstream media once again parachuting in to capture the symbolic destruction of a community rather than the daily work of resilience, political engagement and spiritual renewal — that sparks Whitt’s deepest anger and exhaustion.
I live here. When it comes to the gatekeeping of our shared visual culture, who decides who lives where? When we travel outside our proscribed boundaries, who’s a tourist and who’s a local? Who are the elders, the storytellers, the colonizers, the canonizers? Which is my story and which is yours? So far this year, those questions have received encouraging answers, with “Get Out” and “Girls Trip” becoming breakout hits, and such documentaries as “Step” and now “Whose Streets?” earning festival and Oscar buzz.
With luck, the same people who have been moved by “Detroit” will also see those films — not as a corrective, necessarily, but as part of opening the gate wider to a world that isn’t nearly as monolithic or demarcated as we’ve allowed ourselves to believe. It’s a big, boisterous world, full of injustice and pain, transcendence and beauty. And we all live here.