Detroit and White Ignorance

Saw the movie Detroit this weekend and thought I’d post a few thoughts so that you won’t waste your time. That is, unless you’re white.

Let me explain…

Based on the true story of a group of young people detained and brutalized at the Algiers Motel in Detroit, the film opens with a printed narrative of how Detroit became segregated. Immediately, I was struck more by what it didn’t state than what it did. According to the film’s creators, Detroit is segregated because white people “migrated” to the suburbs and blacks were forced to live in more densely populated parts of town. I literally threw my hands in the air after reading this annoyingly simple and surface explanation. Without proper context it’s impossible to grasp the weight of what people had to endure at that time. One cannot thoroughly comprehend the spirit of racism undergirding what we were about to witness onscreen when an important and impactful history is introduced through such a wasted narrative.

There was nothing there to state the U.S. government’s role in all of this. Nothing to demonstrate how the law and its enforcement has been used against black people even at the highest echelons of our nation’s organization. This would have provided a lot more substance to the chain of events that eventually unfolded on screen. Those who weren’t alive at that time… or who were hidden away in the suburbs… could have grasped why so much anger and frustration flowed from black citizens to law enforcement officers later in the film. Absent was any indication that that the federal government enacted programs and policies which expressly prohibited black people from moving into the suburbs even when they could afford to. Though there were black veterans in the film, there was not a word about black veterans who fought for this country, but who were systematically denied access to the federally-funded GI bill that helped white veterans purchase those homes in the suburbs. There was nothing even about blacks being forced to live in substandard housing projects which were expressly built to keep them out of white projects (Yes, there were white projects! Those with better amenities, access to better schools and which were better maintained).

All that the film stated was that white people migrated out of crowded cities, while blacks stayed put. I could go on, but it suffices to say that this missed opportunity to teach the masses a real history of what lead to the Algiers incident was my first clue that the movie wasn’t going to impress me much. Some will say that the full history of how Detroit (and America) became segregated wasn’t germane to the rest of the story. The film’s creators, however, would disagree, which is why they saw fit to open the story with their simplistically airbrushed version.

Not Really Spoilers, But…

I don’t want to publish any spoilers for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, but I do have to tell you how, according to the film, the chaos begins. Don’t worry, it’s not a major plot point so I don’t think this will ruin it for anyone. I won’t be offended if you stop reading now, but I really don’t think it’s necessary and I do want to bring something to your attention.

Still here? Good, so here’s the second issue I took with the film…

The raiding of an all black after-hours joint by white police turns into a riot started by party-goers. While this may be precisely what happened, I can guarantee you it’s not all that happened. Black people are portrayed here as taking to burning down their neighborhoods, looting local stores, hurling rocks and bottles at police officers and sparking a series of events that lead to the movie’s main plot. All because a party was shut down and several attendees were arrested for petty offenses.

No. Just no.

The film gives no backstory as to the history of over-policing and violence in black neighborhoods that preceded this altercation. It offers no insight into the daily struggles of people living in communities segregated by law, who were regularly harassed by police just for being black and who lived under the weight of white supremacy during the height of this nation’s Civil Rights Movement. All the film offers for context is that black revelers got pissed about their party being broken up and so they started a riot. Problematic.

I said I wouldn’t give the film’s plot away and I won’t. What I will do though is tell you that it didn’t take me even 5 minutes to figure out that the film was written by white people for white people. Why do I say this? Because there are multiple eye-rolling scenes where “good” white cops made mention of certain police activities not being right because black people have, “their civil rights”. Or where one riot officer on tactical alert encounters a badly beaten and bloodied black man running for his life. This officer looks upon the man and wonders out loud how someone can do this to another human being before assuring the man that he will help save his life. He even refers to him as “buddy” as he loads the barely conscious man into his squad car to escort him to safety.

Where do police do that?

I don’t care that this was based on a true story. As a black woman, I can assure you that this did not happen in Detroit. In 1967. While a violent, racially-infused riot was in full-swing! I can also assure you that no black person wrote that into the script and expected a black audience to believe it. White people will believe that… and God bless y’all for being so naive… but I’ll get to that in a moment.

There were other similar and quite obvious indicators that the film’s creators were a bit short-sighted and that they expected their audience to be just as much. I don’t think that this was a deliberate manipulation of events and I’m not saying that any of it made the movie suck, overall. It just made it suck for me. Before sitting my black self down in that theater seat, I had no idea that Kathryn Bigelow directed Detroit anymore than I even knew who Mark Boal was before this. I merely supported it because I’d read earlier in the day that the film hadn’t done so well in the box office during its opening weekend. I made the effort to help it improve because it was a predominately black cast depicting a moment in history that I knew little about. Although it delivered both on a basic level, it fell way short in really capturing the vibe of that era and it seemed to work overtime to support the “not all white cops” narrative. For me, it was just too unbelievable and I don’t think anyone likes to walk away from a true story feeling like you’ve somehow been duped. I didn’t even know such a feeling was possible before watching Detroit.

The Naivete and Ignorance of White People

Talking to a friend who’d also seen the movie, I mentioned my thoughts on it being written by and for white people who don’t know any better. My friend interrupted me to say that white people definitely do know better. That they fully understand white supremacy and systematic racism, but that they just don’t care to do anything about it (including admitting that they actually “get it”). According to my friend, white people practice a sort of willful blindness and willful ignorance.

I disagree.

Having been introduced to the work of people like Dr. Robin DiAngelo, Dr. Jacqueline Battalora and Debby Irving (whose book, Waking Up White, I’m currently reading), I’m beginning to understand how very differently white and black people are in terms of our racial literacy. While black people tend to have PhDs on the subject, most white people barely have a kindergarten-level understanding of how systematic racism works and how systemic its impact is in our daily lives and interactions. White people really don’t know what they don’t know… and why should they? White supremacy has always benefited them even to the extent that they are privileged enough to live in bubbles that allow them to believe that black people are just so combustible that the mere shutting down of an after-hours party is enough for them to burn entire neighborhoods down. Or that white police officers are horrified at the site of a bloodied black man running for his life during a riot to the point that they will hand-deliver him to the hospital so that his life will be spared.

We have lived in two different Americas long enough that their version presents as total make believe to us and our version is too outlandish for them to believe. This is why some white people are so quick to defend police or prefer to take a “let’s just wait until we hear the whole story” approach when they hear of a 12-year-old playing with a toy gun in a park being shot by police in less than 2 seconds of them approaching the child. It is unfathomable to them that police from “their America” could be so trigger-happy and cold-blooded. After all, these are the people they pay for protection and service, so why wouldn’t they protect and serve everyone?

So, when I call white people ignorant, this isn’t coming from a place of disrespect. Fact is, it’s coming from a place of compassion and patience. Not long ago, I believed that white people “should” know better and I declared that I was tired of “teaching” those who didn’t. Now I know that there’s no reason for them to know better as they often experience a completely different reality–one that rewards whiteness while simultaneously punishing blackness. We (i.e. black people) see a fuller and more accurate picture of the way things actually are while they are taught to believe in and often experience an American dream that was literally designed for them… and ONLY them. Upon coming to this realization, I’m realizing that I simply cannot discard them as choosing not to know something that they’ve never been exposed to. At the same time, though, I find myself sorely disappointed when a film depicting a moment in history misses a huge opportunity to educate the masses who normally just don’t get it. Then I’m reminded that the film’s creators just don’t get it, either. They tried, but they missed.


If you are white and haven’t fully awakened yet to the realities of race in America but want to, you’ll enjoy Detroit. It is sugarcoated just enough to jar you awake without totally destroying your faith in the policing of black communities. Perhaps that destruction of faith will come at a later date when you’re prepared for it, but you don’t have to worry about this film doing any of that. You’ll learn a little about how the dreams and innocence of our young people are often irreparably crushed, but you’ll walk away feeling like that was then and this is now because, after all, “black people have their civil rights” now. You’ll feel confident that one or two bad white cops doesn’t spoil a whole bunch.

But if you’re black and have a pretty solid education on Systematic Racism 101, just wait for the film to debut on Netflix. Watching it in a theater will leave you feeling like you should’ve just Googled the Algier’s incident if you wanted to know the story. There’s literally nothing in this movie that will shock, surprise or teach you anything you don’t already know. Worst of all, it won’t even be all too entertaining since you’ll find several scenes and snippets of dialogue to be super unrealistic and, dare I say, even a bit insulting to your intelligence.

Not a total waste of time, but a total waste of money–depending upon which America you’ve been allowed to live in.

What Did You Think of Detroit?

Have you seen the movie? What were your thoughts on the story and how it was delivered onscreen? Do you disagree with my feelings about the film? I’m always curious to hear other points of view, so the floor is all yours and I look forward to reading your comments below.

~ L.

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