The divide between academics and lay historians is never more clear than when someone outside the guild engages in history-telling and stumbles into the dilemmas that professionals (and independent scholars) regularly face. Movies based on historical events frequently fit the bill, and because they do reach larger — and different — audiences than scholarly monographs, their representations can actually take on more meaning. While trained historians might parse these films for certain details, responses by non-historians offer alternative means for getting at historical issues. Movie reviews are a window into the artistic effect of popular histories in a way that scholarly reviews of professional writing are not. As such, they are often more telling about where we are as a society than our academic output.
One recent critique serves as a disappointing indicator. The Hollywood Reporter movie critic Todd McCarthy’s review of the new historical film Detroit is tragically oblivious and ignorant: it is seated in privilege and utterly lacks awareness of anything beyond that. McCarthy’s unconscious bias is, frankly, startling. For example, he writes:
“The cop in charge, Philip Krauss (Will Poulter, the kid in The Revenant), is a hideous racist and sadist of the worst kind (he’s also a fictional character, presumably, because whomever he’s based on in real life was found innocent in court and can’t be depicted as doing what the character is seen doing onscreen).” (emphasis mine)
Apparently Mr. McCarthy is so uninformed by the racial history in our country that he believes that if a white cop did something bad to citizens, s/he would be convicted of a crime and not having been convicted must mean that s/he did no violent acts. As noted, this is extreme obliviousness, but it demonstrates poor reasoning generally as well.
Sadly, it’s also the basis for his criticism of the film. As McCarthy puts it:
“Historically, there’s little question that in Detroit the white authorities were the bad guys, so unless the creative artists are inclined to delve beneath this rendering to examine nuances on both sides, it’s uncertain what the film has to offer other than a punch to the gut.”
To that reviewer, value in a historically-based production such as this lies in moral and psychological examination of the (white) antagonists. While it’s tempting to mock such a position by taking it to its absurdity (replace “Detroit” with “World War II” and “white authorities” with “Nazis” and see what kind of film library you can build), McCarthy has actually stumbled into a historiographical quandary that is interesting to explore.
For those who lived through the racial upheavals of the 60’s and those born since, humanizing depictions of those events have immense value. They raise awareness and build cross-community understanding; they give us context for the issues we are dealing with today. McCarthy even acknowledges the latter:
“It’s impossible to sit through all this and not ponder how things are, or are not, the same a full half-century after the events on display.”
For the reviewer, however, the film’s failure to present the police with more complexity — and here he is assuming that racism can be situated or in some way rationalized, rather than existing as a simplistic ideology — robs it of profitability for viewers today. Obviously, when he talks about viewers, he means white viewers, because for black viewers, seeing an acknowledgment of the harms done to them and their community most certainly has a value in itself. It may even be more important for white Americans to watch such films, though, because it forces them to choose between historical denialism and acknowledging past acts; they are unable to blissfully continue in their ignorance when presented with the history. Hence, the issues here aren’t really about this movie specifically or McCarthy alone. They get to the heart of why we study history and learn about our often unpleasant past.
Historical understanding — be it through monographs, documentaries, historical fiction, or exhibits — makes us conscious about our past and our present and offers us the opportunity to inform our future with that knowledge. In that sense, it might be more valuable to be aware of our dark pasts than it is to take on the mantle of our former glories. As obnoxious as it is to say that there are lessons to be learned from history, it can inspire us to make different choices when we confront our failures from the past.
McCarthy comes thisclose to a historical epiphany just such as this when he notes:
“In its depiction of this cauldron of helter-skelter violence lies the implicit and entirely plausible suggestion that the mainly white police in every instance overreacted to what was going on; if the wee-hours revelers had just been left alone on that first night, it’s implied that nothing untoward would likely have resulted.”
Tragically, he is unable to fully embrace this insight about the possibility of de-escalation, largely because of his insistence — which must be based in racial preference — that the white characters gain focus, rather than it remaining strictly on the black victims. Sitting with the tragedy and trying to understand and even empathize with angry black crowds — which is a very profitable pursuit — is an activity McCarthy says only activists would welcome. Hence, his negative assessment of the picture culminates in this dismissive criticism:
“What we get instead is a ramped up “j’accuse” that will offer forceful connections with present-day incidents for those keen to find them.”
Overcoming this bias — the notion that issues of police brutality and violence in our black communities are for radicals and minority citizens only — is truly the greatest test our histories of this period face. In this, academics share the same challenge as the film-makers here. Is there anything in the art of the storytelling that breaks down that barrier, or does it so control the reader’s view that we have no hope of transcending our divisions through education and understanding?
Surely that is exactly the point of our stories. If it isn’t to build understanding, we really shouldn’t bother. What we don’t need, as a society, is to develop sympathy for the racists or to try to mitigate their behavior in any way. Such character studies might fascinate, but they lack a larger social benefit. They will not help to build bridges and they do not reflect democratic values. Pursuing a better republic requires continuing to tell stories about the victims, to lay the indecencies plain in order to fully face the past and embrace mutual opposition to state-sponsored violence against minority communities going forward. Our histories must accuse. It isn’t the history some want, but it is the history we need.