By Harvey Blume
I have no doubt that Kathryn Bigelow is entitled to make Detroit. Or that Dana Schutz is entitled to paint Emmett Till, lying, after being tortured and murdered, in his casket. Or that Shakespeare was entitled to write Shylock (Stephen Greenblatt’s marvelous revisiting of that play in a recent New Yorker demands to be read.) Or that Walter Mosley could create believable Jewish characters. Or that Jonathan Lethem could create credible and interesting black ones. Or that male novelists can write about women, and vice versa.
Such efforts are not always successes, to be sure, but the same should be said of any work of art in any genre. To argue otherwise — to credit the powers of censorship — is a huge step back.
I’d rather censor the censors.
Still, I’m not going to see Detroit and that’s because I’m sure it will have the virtues of Kathryn Bigelow’s other films and the corresponding flaws. The virtues are especially evident in her Iraq movies — Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker. Bigelow has a unique talent for immediacy, for confronting viewers with the power of the present. Hence her deserved reputation as a director of action movies. I know of none better. But all that immediacy, as she deploys it, squeezes out the last possibility of thought.
What did her characters think of our involvement in Iraq? She doesn’t allow them to think. What are her views? No room for that. No room for any ruminations about history, either.
I can imagine how her talent will play out in Detroit, and therefore decline to see it. It will all too predictably be the adrenaline rush of Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker playing out on the canvas of police brutality, racism, and a race riot. Her power to address the senses intensely, the here and now, will as usual, leave the brain stymied. That style may be perfect for Point Break, her surfer movie, or Near Dark, a vampire film, but I’d like to keep the brain attached when it comes to the story of the Detroit riot.
Bigelow had the right to make this movie, no doubt. To even debate this question is a critical red herring. But I too have the right, as a critic and consumer, to spare myself what I have good reason to think will be an intensely unsatisfying experience.
Harvey Blume is an author—Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo—who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse, and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.
Editor’s Note: I wrestled with Harvey’s short commentary because it seems to me that an explanation about why a critic is not going to write on something — in this case, a film — without having seen it should not be encouraged. (Particularly in the know-nothing Age of Trump.) Do we really care why a critic didn’t bother to take in a book, film, play, etc? Isn’t there something self-indulgent about the exercise? There is an important exception: a critic’s act of refusal can be used to advance a provocative argument. For example, Arlene Croce’s detailed explanation in the New Yorker of why she wasn’t going to review Bill T. Jones’ AIDS play Still/Here. She made the case that Jones’ production was Victim Art: the show was just about making a safe political point. There was no need for arts criticism of what amounted to a PSA. A firestorm of comment followed — all to the good.
Harvey is not accepting that kind of intellectual challenge in this piece. Still, I am interested in what readers think. So I have posted it.
– Bill Marx