Do white filmmakers have the right to make a movie like “Detroit”? The moral right, that is? Set during the Detroit riots of 1967, the movie tells an essential true story about the brutalization of African-Americans. The fact that the issue of the filmmakers’ race is out there at all — and will be even more so now that the critically acclaimed drama has finally opened wide — tells you how far we’ve travelled as a society from just a few years ago: toward a heightened sensitivity about who controls the levers of expression in America, and toward rigorous new codes of conduct built around issues of race, gender, and sexual identity.
The reason I ask whether white filmmakers have the right is that if we’re going to discuss the topic at all, we shouldn’t kid ourselves: The flavor of absolutism is in the air. The fact that some have questioned whether Kathryn Bigelow, the director of “Detroit,” and the film’s screenwriter, Mark Boal, were the right people to be making this movie should, theoretically, feed into a healthy debate. Yet the thirst for social justice — on campuses, on social media, in other arenas — has led, with increased frequency, to an atmosphere in which speech, attitudes, and actions are held up to the light and…well, policed. Something doesn’t have to be against the law for it to be branded taboo.
The debate over the ownership of ethnic narrative may now be spreading into the world of movies, like a brush fire, from the world of literature, where it is rapidly becoming conventional wisdom that it’s wrong for a writer to “appropriate” the experiences of those of a different race. Professors have been fired in recent months for supporting the opposing argument. Yet one has to ask: Is this where we now want the world of popular culture to be going?
If you believe, as I do, that the answer is no, then the first issue to raise is where one would even draw the line. “Detroit” uses the 1967 riot to reenact, as the film’s central dramatic episode, a notorious night of hell that took place in the Algiers Motel, where a group of black citizens were terrorized — and three were murdered — by white police officers. The movie is a psychological excavation of the roots of police brutality; it’s a work of crusading social and political conscience. But let’s imagine, for a moment, that we were talking about a serious drama of African-American life that wasn’t rooted in the cataclysm of racial conflict. Who would have the right to direct that movie? Do you see, rather quickly, where this all goes? To a place of culturally determined slots that’s not only restrictive but racially pigeonholed in the very ways that it seeks to fight against.
The debate over “Detroit,” which has yet to explode into a full-blown incendiary media controversy (though it could at any moment), is driven, to a degree, by the fundamental question of Hollywood’s hiring practices — an issue that needs, more than ever, to be pushed to the center of the radar. Even in 2017, the relative lack of diversity among filmmakers, producers, and executives with greenlight power remains a stark and scandalous fact. If you don’t believe that Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal should be the ones to make a movie like “Detroit,” then the clear implication is that African-American filmmakers should be out there telling stories like this one. That they aren’t — at least, not often — emerges from the fact that there aren’t enough black filmmakers in Hollywood.
Fifty years ago, the Canadian-born director Norman Jewison made “In the Heat of the Night,” a major Hollywood movie that presented a bold new power dynamic of black/white relationships: stalwart black detective, stubborn redneck police chief, a famously mutual slap in the face in place of the usual kowtowing dance. At the time, there were no mainstream African-American directors at all, and few people would have even given a thought to the issue. That “In the Heat of the Night” got made by anyone was a giant leap forward. Even as fearless an observer as James Baldwin believed that the movie channeled a revolutionary shift.
But fast forward 25 years — to 1992, which was 25 years ago. We were in the middle of the independent film revolution, and one of its many glories was to bring in sensibilities that had not been heard at full blast before: cutting-edge gay voices like Todd Haynes, women’s voices like those of Nancy Savoca and Allison Anders, African-American voices like those of Spike Lee and the Hughes brothers. With all that creative ferment going on, when the time finally came to produce a large-scale biopic about Malcolm X, who did Hollywood turn to?
It turned to Norman Jewison. Again.
There was something wrong with that picture. Cries of protest went up, without even — yes — any Internet to spread them; going viral was something the analog world knew how to do just fine. As the protest attained a critical mass, it became clear that a change needed to be made, and Jewison, graciously stepping aside, was replaced by Spike Lee, who responded by turning the life story of Malcolm X, played (indelibly) by Denzel Washington, into a blazingly spectacular film.
Hollywood had done the right thing. It felt unassailable to say: The life story of black America’s most revolutionary postwar leader should, indeed, be directed by an African-American filmmaker. Yet what, exactly, was the precedent being set? Can we draw a direct line from the story of the “Malcolm X” movie to “Detroit” and say: Why not a black filmmaker here?
I raise the question only to illustrate how complex it is. When it comes to the possession of subjects and the freedom of expression, there are no one-size-fits-all answers. Yet let’s look at “Detroit.” A tumultuous panorama of the 1967 riot, it’s at heart a story about the black experience of the police, and it’s a harrowing and morally unsettling movie, because it captures, with a screw-tightening you-are-there relentlessness, the fear and rage and sick dread and horror of what it is to experience law enforcers as racist bullies and violent brutes. These are realities that African-Americans understand in a different — deeper — way than white Americans do.
Yet what Kathryn Bigelow, a brilliant and humane hair-trigger filmmaker, has done is to re-create that experience — to imagine it, to place herself and the audience inside it — as a powerful act of empathy, and as a cleansing act of art. I would argue that she has used her knowledge, and imagination, to step over the boundaries of her own experience and enter the lives of others. That’s what great filmmakers do. That’s what artists do.
Do we now want to live in a watchdog state of artistic correctness in which even adventurous filmmakers don’t have the right to do that? In which it’s frowned upon, discouraged, and branded “appropriation” for someone to make a movie representing those of a different race? My view is that we should always use a moment like this one as a clarion call for the equality of opportunity. But what movies, more than any other art form, have taught us is the equality of empathy. And maybe the one rule we should strive for is to say that no one of any race, gender, or sexuality owns any story. That the only factor that should dictate who tells it is, ultimately, the power of the telling.