There's a Huge Difference Between How Black and White Critics Are Reacting to Detroit


Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow’s harrowing depiction of a police assault on a Detroit motel in 1967, hits theaters across America on Friday. (It has been playing in limited release since last Friday.) The movie, which stars John Boyega and Anthony Mackie, has received a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes so far. Reading the review site, you’re likely to encounter glowing blurbs extolling the film’s power, timeliness, and unflinching gaze.

But delve a bit deeper and you might notice that these glowing reviews come, by and large, from white critics. Compare these to several Detroit reviews written by black critics or published in black publications, and you see a sharp contrast in the way this film appears to be playing.

Here are a few examples. First, from some critics who happen to be white (emphasis mine throughout):

Andrea Mandell of USA Today:

The film’s unflinching gaze on a lawless night will likely be politicized, but calling Detroit anti-police misses the mark. The question Detroit begs is, in a democratic nation, to whom does the law apply?

Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal:

Dramatically relentless and emotionally shattering, it brings news from a turbulent past that casts a baleful light on America’s troubled present.

Mick LaSalle of The San Francisco Chronicle:

It is designed to make you angry, and it does nothing to soften the blow or create some artificial uplift. But there is something about honesty that’s exhilarating.

David Edelstein of New York:

What Bigelow does — incomparably — is put us in that room with those people at that moment. She induces a feeling of powerlessness that’s beyond our capacity to imagine on our own, and she keeps it going through the courtroom scenes and closing credits and beyond, as we return to a world where the same scenario is playing in an endless loop. If nothing else, movies like Detroit are protection against forgetting, so that what happens in Detroit doesn’t stay in Detroit.

Compare that to some critics who happen to be black:

From Angelica Jade Bastien, of

“Detroit” is ultimately a confused film that has an ugliness reflected in its visual craft and narrative. Bigelow is adept at making the sharp crack of an officer’s gun against a black man’s face feel impactful but doesn’t understand the meaning of the emotional scars left behind or how they echo through American history. “Detroit” is a hollow spectacle, displaying rank racism and countless deaths that has nothing to say about race, the justice system, police brutality, or the city that gives it its title.

From K. Austin Collins, of The Ringer:

The gaps here more or less mean this movie isn’t really about black people as people, nor history as a lived experience, but is instead invested in a dutiful, “just the facts, ma’am” reenactment that pretends those other things are already a given. Boal, and Bigelow beside him, refuse to speculate about — or imagine — the rest.

From Shenequa Golding, of VIBE magazine:

The ballooning resentment and injustice that grows throughout the film is also too much to swallow, but aside from just telling the story, where Bigelow falls short is the fact the film is devoid of any real empathy. If the Academy-Award winning director assumes dead black bodies will inspire an outpouring of support for black people in America, Emmett Till’s open casket proved Sister Bigelow wrong many moons ago.

And from Dwight Brown, of NNPA Newswire:

“Detroit” tells a story of racial injustice and police brutality, based on fact, which is easy enough to believe and has parallels with today’s problems with police criminality and impunity. But since this important subject is not new, what is the point of the film? What are we learning that is unique? What actionable knowledge are we getting from a tragic, racist event that happened 50 years ago? Unfortunately, “Detroit” fails to deliver on any of these points.

This isn’t to say that some white critics haven’t noted similar issues. Deadline and Newsweek’s critics, for instance, also found the film to be ultimately hollow. And Edelstein did note that director Bigelow and writer Mark Boal “don’t bring much moral complexity to Detroit.” But that lack of complexity is forgiven in the service of the film’s overall message: That the audience confronts and remembers the horrors of racism.

But this assumes that the audience has forgotten—that is to say, that the audience is white. Black people in Detroit—or in Ferguson, or New York City, or Birmingham, or Oakland, or Baltimore, or Minnesota, or Cleveland, or on the side of the road in Waller County, Texas—don’t need to be told to whom America’s laws apply.

The Root’s own Danielle Young wrote that she, at one point, had to leave the theater because “sitting in the theater felt like the torture I watched on-screen.”

It all raises the question: How valuable is a piece of art, how valuable is the statement its making, if the people it is purporting to represent find it unwatchable?

This also raises the issue of who, exactly, is leading our cultural conversation. A critic’s role is to deliver a meaningful judgment of a work of art, to assess its cultural value and, to a lesser extent, to help guide the audience. Detroit, a film that revolves around black trauma, is being lauded as an “important” and timely film—but, by and large, not by black critics. And because black people (and people of color, generally) are so underrepresented in mainstream film criticism, their issues with Detroit are mere drops in a sea of overwhelmingly positive reviews. We deserve better than that.

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