Be Black, Baby is an extended sequence from Hi, Mom!, Brian De Palma’s 1970 film, that features a group of upper class, New York WASPs taking part in a live theater experiment where they will supposedly understand what it feels like to be African American. Helmed by a group of black radicals, the experiment forces its participants wear shoe polish on their faces while the performers harass them, wearing white face. During the experience, two of the actors rape one of the white patrons. Actors impersonating the police (including a young Robert De Niro) then arrest the white patrons, just because they are black. A sardonic 15 minutes, De Palma’s Be Black, Baby pushes beyond satire. When the horrific performance ends the director then shows the patrons, still in blackface and emotional, raving about what a riveting performance it had been.

So what does that mean for a white audience watching a film such as Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow’s intense drama based on true incidents that occurred in the midst of a race riot in Detroit during the summer of 1967? Detroit attempts to thrust the audience into the position of a black man as he is harassed by white police, but unlike Be Black, Baby there is no winking premise of experimental theater. Instead, Detroit is an emotionally harrowing experience at the cinema, one that toes the line between essential and exploitative.

Bigelow has ascended from genre director to making Important Films since her Best Picture win for The Hurt Locker (2008). However, it is important to remember that Bigelow worked for years as an action director on films such as Point Break and K-19: The Widowmaker and horror films like Near Dark. Following The Hurt Locker’s success, she paired once again with screenwriter Mark Boal for the acclaimed Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and for Detroit. Even though Detroit has been made with the utmost care to honor the violence that took place 50 years ago, Bigelow’s horror film tendencies threaten to push the film in the wrong direction.

Much of Detroit takes place in the Algiers Motel where a group of police officers detained a group of young African American men (and two white girls) after believing a sniper took a shot at them. Following an extended opening sequence that leads most of the film’s principal characters to the Algiers, Bigelow enters the same mode she used to make the hunt for Bin Laden scene in Zero Dark Thirty so tense. We meet Larry Reed (Algee Smith), a singer in a group that is about to breakout in Motown, and his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), two young men who take refuge in the motel to escape the rioting taking place out in the streets. Two young white women (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) introduce them to Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell). Annoyed at the presence of the newcomers, Cooper frightens them with a starter pistol. He then shoots the gun out the window as a prank.

The police and National Guard respond to the shots. In tow is Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a black security guard who wants nothing more than to keep order. The young men and women, along with Vietnam vet Robert Greene (Anthony Mackie), are detained by the police and subjected to hours of physical and psychological torture.

Until this point, Detroit appears to be a macro look at the violence that swept over that city. Bigelow and Boal introduce key historical characters, such as John Conyers, in the opening segment. However, it is all a set-up to get us to that motel where Bigelow casts aside the sweeping, and somewhat topical, first act to reveal a more intimate, and frightening, centerpiece. Here, Bigelow uses her tools as a horror director to inflict upon the audience each brutal moment, tying us to helpless black characters on the screen much in the same way De Palma put his ignorant WASPs through a similar experience in Hi, Mom! It is an ugly, difficult hour to watch, one filled with rage and, sadly, still relevant here 50 years later.

We know that Bigelow has a bleak world view, not only based on her twin treatises on the hypocrisy that sprung the War on Terror, but the twisted darkness that surrounds Strange Days. Dismukes sits by and watches as the police beat and intimidate the residents of the Algiers Motel, complicit in his refusal to speak out. Yet, even when he is made into a patsy by police, Dismukes remains stoic, as if he is the ultimate victim, a black man completely neutered by an oppressive white regime.

Despite its many flaws, Detroit is essential viewing, at the very least for keeping the conversation about race going in a country where bigoted behavior is validated by an insensitive president. The decision to have a white woman, such as Bigelow, tell this story will likely raise eyebrows, but not many directors are as good as crafting the roughly visceral quality needed to make the Algiers sequence hit home as hard as it does here. Detroit can feel scattered and sometimes paints its characters in broad strokes, but its ability to unnerve and horrify is important, a terror that doesn’t cease to exist when the lights go up and the credits roll.

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