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Can White Writers Truly Tell Our Stories? A Look at “Detroit”

By January 27th, 2021No Comments
Can White Writers Truly Tell Our Stories? A Look at "Detroit"

Three black teens—Aubrey Pollard, Carl Cooper, and Fred Temple—were killed by law enforcement during a 1967 raid at Detroit’s Algiers Motel, sparking civil unrest in the streets.

Released on the anniversary of the events that started a five-day rebellion that left 43 dead and 1,200 injured, “Detroit” tells the story of the young men and women affected by a night that would change the city forever. The movie opened in select cities in July and nationwide on August 4th, earning just $7.6 million—perhaps because critics and moviegoers feel that it doesn’t tell the full story of the highly segregated city and the events that led up to the riots.

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While “Detroit” is a film about the Black experience during the civil rights era, the story is told from the lens of a White screenwriter and director.

Can White Writers Truly Tell Our Stories? A Look at "Detroit"
Mark Boal, screenwriter for The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty and Detroit.
Can White Writers Truly Tell Our Stories? A Look at "Detroit"
Kathryn Bigelow, director of Zero Dark Thirty, Detroit

Written by Mark Boal, the White journalist and producer known for “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty”, and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, a White woman from San Francisco who also directed “Zero Dark Thirty”, the movie depicts the horrific events that happened at the Algiers that night without filling in all of the details—like the role Black women, character depth, or historical truth. The film also portrays the officers responsible as bad apples, instead of condemning the entire system.

“There had been a long trail of police violence against the black community prior to ’67,” said Charles Ezra Ferrell, the Vice President for public programs at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit []. “They don’t even tell the history correctly in the beginning. So, therefore, if you don’t have a foundation of what caused that event, you see these as looters. That undermines the story significantly.”

Can White Writers Truly Tell Our Stories? A Look at "Detroit"

Amid controversy over the movie, Bigelow herself questioned if it was her story to tell. “I thought, ‘Am I the perfect person to tell this story? No,” she said. “However, I’m able to tell this story, and it’s been 50 years since it’s been told.” After the indictment of the White officer accused of killing Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, she felt she had to act. “It was two things simultaneously,” she told the New York Times. “One is kind of a, ‘I’m white, am I the right person to do it?’ And the other is an extremely emotional reaction to the constant recurring of these events.” She felt “that I have this opportunity to expose this story in the hope that maybe it either generates a conversation, begins to generate a conversation and/or encourages more stories like this to come forward. To do nothing was not an answer.”

Although Boal did extensive research, reviewing newspaper archives, police reports and even interviewing Cleveland Larry Reed, one of the men involved, some feel that key pieces of the story are still missing. In a piece he wrote for Vulture, he explained by saying, “The underlying intention…was always pretty straightforward: to unpack the riot and this one incident at the Algiers from the point of view of its many participants, and thereby enable the audience to experience the events themselves. We wanted viewers not so much to watch the story as absorb it like a physical sensation.”

“Beyond that, I don’t have anything prescriptive to say about racism in America, only the sorrowful and perhaps obvious observation that the lessons learned 50 years ago seemed to have been forgotten in the wake of continuing injustices in Ferguson, Baltimore, Baton Rouge, and so many other cities. And while it is indeed an interesting and vital question to ask how much has changed since the 1960s between African-American communities and the police forces that putatively serve them, I leave that discussion to professionals in race and police reform.”

Still others say the story is told truthfully—and well.

“I just was like, ‘How does she come to that point where she was like, ‘I’m going to make this?’” said John Boyega, who plays security guard Melvin Dismukes, a witness to the motel events. “And I was glad that she did.”

Dismukes himself said, “It is 99.5% accurate as to what went down at the Algiers and in the city at the time. I had never felt open to telling my side of the story until I met Kathryn, but she really listened to me and promised to get the truth out, and I think she did an amazing job.”

“For me, if you are serious about this and if you are approaching this with respect and integrity, you’ll be willing to listen, you’ll have the right people around you, and also you will give the actors — especially the black actors on set — the best opportunity to portray these characters,” Boyega said. “She did all of that. She approached it with respect, she had integrity. She was open to different ideas.”

“We know how good of a storyteller Kathryn is,” said Algee Smith, who starred in “The New Edition Story” on BET and plays Mr. Reed. “We see that she holds no punches in the way that she tells a story. She makes you feel like you’re in there. With this, the story has to be told in a certain way for people to connect. So it’s not about what color the person is shooting the film. It’s about who can tell the story the best.”

Will you see “Detroit?” What are your thoughts on White writers/directors telling our stories?
Can White Writers Truly Tell Our Stories? A Look at "Detroit"
Tiffani Greenaway is the wife and mom behind MyMommyVents, a New York city parenting blog. Her tips have been seen on Yahoo Parenting, Mommy Noire, and Fit Pregnancy. Find more of Tiffani’s work at

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