The important form of documentary today never airs in theaters. We view it in grainy windows on social media, on shady video sites that don’t regulate their content. Sometimes, we see edited versions on the evening news, or sandwiched between paragraphs on our favorite news site.
The footage that has exposed the deadly use of police violence against Black men in the United States is a phenomenon of immeasurable sociopolitical import, and our culture has yet to correct itself even an inch in combatting the evils that this documentary has brought to forefront of discourse.
I have been drastically disappointed by recent attempts by mainstream art to capture the horror of these videos. Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial “Detroit” is the latest in this string of disappointments, a work of historical fiction that attempts to retroactively document a past injustice, one that happened before smartphones could have shone their light on it. It failed because it played the events as a traditional thriller. “Detroit” ’s inoffensive but banal formal structure betrayed the gravity of the horrific racial murders that made up its subject. Real violence became pop movie violence.
I became even more disappointed by “Detroit” when I realized that decades earlier, Bigelow had already tackled this subject with a narrative film, and not only was this film astoundingly more successful in capturing the horror of documented police violence, but it also made key predictions about the role of technology in uncovering injustice that were terrifyingly prescient. “Strange Days,” Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 secret neo-noir cyberpunk masterpiece, not only does this, but offers a message of hope and change in the face of the crushing hegemony of neoliberal white supremacy.
Initially, “Strange Days” seems like a forgettable but good pastiche of noir genre elements in a cyberpunk future. You’ve got your noir antihero: A disgraced, slimy former detective who hangs onto his principles by a thread (Ralph Fiennes, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”), his trusty, badass partner who grounds the film in morality (Angela Bassett, “American Horror Story”) a mysterious macguffin, a sex worker caught in a deadly bit of trouble, a femme fatale and of course, thugs who protect the interests of their evil employers with violence. Where “Strange Days” becomes something more than “Chinatown but in the future, man” is when the secret our antihero stumbles on is a recording of an execution-style murder of a Black activist by the LAPD. Bigelow made the film in the aftermath of Rodney King, the white-hot rage of racial injustice becomes imbued as the driving force of the plot.
Bigelow’s first stroke of genius was in recognizing and portraying the fundamental flaws in our society that lead to racial violence and injustice. The world of “Strange Days” is a very near future that’s only slightly more grimy, alienated and violent than reality. Her extraordinary set designers and artists painted the perfect geohell, a Verhoevian late-capitalist Los Angeles where desperate masses clash with a fascist police force as capital-owning aristocrats cavort in skyscrapers. The key here is that the inequality is only slightly exaggerated, unlike in films like “Elysium” when the class metaphor is so cartoonish and over-the-top that the connection to reality is lost. I suppose “Strange Days” shares some formal DNA with “Blade Runner,” another sci-fi neo-noir where themes of exploitation and slavery are central, but “Strange Days” fearlessly confronts the issue of racial social justice where the “Blade Runner” films pull punches. Where “Blade Runner” attempts to ground the audience’s pathos for injustice in applying the consequences of slavery and violence to exclusively White characters, “Strange Days” directly confronts the repressive violence against the Black working class.
Bigelow's second stroke of genius was her casting of the two main characters. Casting the brilliant Ralph Fiennes, whose star-making roles the previous two years in “Schindler’s List” (as a Nazi) and “Quiz Show” (as a charismatic, handsome Protestant groomed to replace an unphotogenic Jew on television) established him as a symbol of clean-cut WASPs in positions of immense power. It is deliciously subversive for Bigelow to cast him as a self-serving white guy who changes when he discovers the horrific injustices perpetuated against minorities in America. Angela Bassett’s casting, hot off of Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” was equally brilliant, as her character is not merely a strong and fierce badass, but a powerful, sympathetic moral voice that goes beyond acting as Fiennes’s sidekick and acts as the catalyst for enacting racial justice.
And finally, like all great sci-fi filmmakers, Bigelow uses ideas about future technology to make moral statements about society. The “wire,” a Google Glass-like device that allows a user to record their experiences or to experience the lives of others, is worryingly predictive of body cam footage and the ubiquity of smartphone cameras. Just as Spielberg made an argument for due process and against prior restraint with the crime-predicting technology in “Minority Report,” Bigelow treatises on the role of social technology in the future of both crime and justice.
While “Strange Days” remains an extremely dark dystopian film throughout its runtime, one of the things I liked best about the film is that it offers a glimmer of hope and justice at the end. The central fantasy of this movie is that the people at the height of power in our society saw the tapes of police brutality and acted to change it. If that fantasy is ever to become a reality, we need more fearless, experimental art like this.