‘Detroit’ and 10 other films about race that completely fail by centering the white gaze
By Law Ware
It should have worked.
In theory, a film about a city on edge that erupts into violence because of police brutality should inspire conversations and think pieces about how little things have changed in the 50 years since the incident being represented.
We could be discussing how the film shows the historical seeds of contemporary Detroit’s faltering public school system and city infrastructure. We should be discussing black victims of police violence. Instead, we have a film that caters to white viewers while it treats black pain as if it were torture porn, which some are calling the most irresponsible and dangerous movie of the year.
I can think of only one reason why Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit makes these missteps. It’s not because there aren’t black faces on screen—we see many of those. It’s not because there are not black women in the movie. They are there.
This film fails because a white woman who chooses to center a white narrative made it.
I’m of the opinion that films telling black stories should, if at all possible, be made by black filmmakers. This is not to say that filmmakers who inhabit black bodies will always make compelling black films (looking at you, Tyler Perry), but I do think that having black filmmakers in writer’s room and behind the camera can work to cut down on the number of black stories that center white people and what Cornel West calls the “normative gaze.”
To support this theory, below are 10 other films about race made by white people that fail by centering the white gaze:
Much has been said about what’s wrong with this film. Just last year, Paul Haggis, the writer and director, gave a down-right bizarre whitesplaining interview to Slate’s Aisha Harris wherein he tried to explain how the film gets race right.
But no, Haggis gets race wrong. Very wrong. Like many white men, he understands racism only in terms of racist individuals—not oppressive systems. The film’s message is, essentially, be kind to one another. And kindness won’t stop the school to prison pipeline.
Directed by Stephen Spielberg, this film tells the story of the enslaved Africans who took the slave ship Amistad by force. It starts off well. Then Anthony Hopkins comes on screen and the focus shifts from the lived experience of those who fought to free themselves from the chains of slavery to a very grumpy white savior who is convinced by a very earnest white savior to save these black folks (because we always need saving).
- Dangerous Minds
Made in 1995, directed by John N. Smith, and featuring Michelle Pfeiffer as the moral center of the film, Dangerous Minds tells the story of a white teacher who going into an inner city school and takes it upon herself to save the black and brown students who are forced to live and learn on the underside of the American democratic experiment. We don’t need stories about white teachers who teach children of color to behave in a civilized manner. Why not make films that highlight the black and brown teachers in the exact same environment?
Although Denzel’s tear nearly saves the film, the story featuring the United States’ first all-African-American regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, is really the story of the white officer who led them. I admit that I almost always tear up when they sing, “Oh my Lawd, Lawd, Lawd, Lawd…,” but I cried when I saw a Viagra commercial, so that’s no real accomplishment.
Written and directed by Brian Helgeland, this is less a film about a human being than it is a hagiography of a divine being. More should have been made of Robinson’s complicated relationship with the Negro leagues, and centering white executive Branch Rickey as a kind of selfless moral leader was a misstep. Further, while the movie is capably made, it lacks the visual flair Robinson deserves.
- The Help
The Help is all the worst parts of white feminism captured on film. Skeeter is the savior and profits off the pain of black women while, at the end, the real heroes of the film are left in the same economic and social situation we found them in. It might as well have been signed: written and directed by Darth Becky.
- Get On Up
This is the second Chadwick Boseman film to make the list. Not because of his performance, but because of the non-linear storytelling and questionable directorial choices of Tate Taylor (who also made The Help). This is an utterly bizarre film that captures neither the spirit of James Brown’s musical genius nor wrestles with his misogyny and history of domestic abuse. Hard pass.
- The Blind Side
Yeah, I know it’s a true story. It’s still about a white savior. The question we must ask about these kinds of true stories is why do the films that feature black folks saved by white people get made while the stories of black folks who help themselves are rarely green lit? This film could have been compelling if it centered Oher and carefully examined the microagressions he faced as a student in a white milieu. It doesn’t.
- Mississippi Burning
This movie tells the story of the FBI’s investigation into the 1964 Freedom Summer murders, when KKK members killed civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. Not only does the film get the history wrong, it also tells the story by making the white investigative officers the narrative lens through which we see the lived experience of the characters.
This film uses black pain as a plot device without addressing what it means to live under the constant threat of racialized violence. It is a horror film for white people that does not force them to see how they are implicated in the system that permits the violence on screen.
- Lean On Me
Beloved by black grandfathers everywhere, this is a two-hour meditation on patriarchy and respectability politics. Joe Clark begins the film by expelling 300 students, thereby adding to the school to prison pipeline. His approach to the real needs of his students is acting like he has all the answers and essentially telling the students to pull their pants up.… But ‘Fair Eastside’ was dope, tho.
It’s cool that white directors find black stories worth telling, and, indeed, the things that black people in this country have endured make for compelling storytelling. But we need more movies that do not center the people who made us endure these hardships in the first place.
This does not mean that a film by a black director will always get race and racism right, but we should get priority when it comes to telling our stories because they are, after all, our own.
Law Ware. is a philosopher of race at his day job and a curator of dopeness when time allows. Bylines in The New York Times, Slate, Fusion, Dissent, The Root and others. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org