I flew to Washington, D.C., last summer to get President Trump to see our movie. This was just before “Detroit” came out in theaters. I was direct: no gatekeepers to muddle my message, no Bannon, no payment to the kids — just a televised appeal beamed right into the White House.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press” — which Trump watches compulsively, or so I’ve read — I looked at the camera, or maybe a bit to the side, and issued my invitation. Perhaps I got off to a slow start by suggesting the president was ignorant of the history of illegal searches and the 14th Amendment, but when Chuck Todd asked me if I’d invite the White House to a screening, I was totally polite. Yes, I said. “Trump should see it. Maybe he’ll learn something.”
The White House never called. Maybe Trump wasn’t in the mood for a serious movie. I can’t really blame him there. It wasn’t exactly summer blockbuster material, this Kathryn Bigelow-directed story of a rising Motown musician whose life was ruined by cops one night in ‘67, with themes of institutional racism and the futile search for justice.
But not every movie has to be a pleasure cruise; some are challenging for good reason and Trump, a movie fan, surely understands that. Maybe he didn’t see the virtue in walking in the shoes of young African American men from a different era. Or maybe he saw “Detroit” and hated the screenplay. And is just too polite to tell me.
In any case, I never got my tweet.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Sadly, the president had strong political incentive for ignoring the film’s message. Consider the politics of division now on full display over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem as a protest against police brutality. A Reuters poll found that 63% of whites disapprove of the players for this, compared with 17% of blacks. The conclusion is inescapable: A solid majority of white people still are not fully sympathetic to attempts by African Americans to organize and agitate for change. Of course, an even more troubling slice of America harbors far nastier feelings, as evidenced by Charlottesville and the rising white supremacy of this past summer.
Entering this fray was always going to be a tricky proposition. When I started writing “Detroit,” Trump wasn’t even president. Back then, I told friends it was a “true crime” story. That was a bit of a dodge, a way of not revealing too much.
“True crime” is what takes place on our TV sets and movie screens, in magazines, books and podcasts. We are shown certain facts, then get to play detective, prosecutor, defense attorney, judge and jury: Gather evidence, construct cases, debate motives and render our own verdicts. The horrors of the criminal act itself are sterilized into hamster pellets for our hungry minds. It’s a very addictive pastime.
By my lights, the crime that “Detroit” revolves around — the murder of three young black men by white police officers at the Algiers Hotel back when it was an infamous city hangout — offers none of those genre pleasures. Under Bigelow’s bravely blunt direction, the tragedy is shown unadorned, with no mystery to soften the blows until you make it to the other side of the story. Unusually for a contemporary motion picture, the film asks the viewer to experience the same loss of dignity as the real-life victims. And depending on your own politics and tolerances, that’s either asking way too much or it’s an act of empathy with moral implications, perhaps long overdue.
Try putting that on a poster.
Hence my quest for a presidential tweet and a guerrilla marketing campaign. The time I wasted trying to goad the president, I realize now, probably would have been better spent reaching out to those protesting football players. Fortunately, “Detroit” has resonated with some of them, anyway. Ben McAdoo, the head coach of the New York Giants, screened “Detroit” for his team, hoping it would be a bonding experience for his racially diverse players.
According to news reports, it was. I was particularly struck by the comments of Eli Apple, a 22-year-old African-American player, who said: “I didn’t know a lot about the events that transpired back in the ‘60s, especially in Detroit with the riots. I don’t think all schools teach that in history classes. They didn’t teach it to me in my history class.”
I remember having the same reaction when I first heard about this story: How in the world did I know so little about it? Why hadn’t it been taught in my history classes? My inspiration for writing “Detroit” was not to fill the gaps in other people’s knowledge. It started with needing to fill the gaps in my own. And then writing a script that made audiences feel as stirred up by what they learned as I was.
And the president? Well, the ads were in heavy rotation on CNN and Fox. So at least he saw the trailer.