Detroit’s Exterminating Angel

Before RoboCop was released in theaters thirty years ago this month, it was given an X rating by the Motion Picture Association of America. Director Paul Verhoeven, knowing that this was guaranteed box office death, went back and scrubbed his film no fewer than eleven times trying to achieve its eventual R rating. He toned down at least three execution scenes and cut out countless blood spatter shots. He also, in what would prove to be one of the film’s most ingenious features, added in the humorous advertisements for such products as the 6000 SUX sedan (8.2 miles per gallon!) and the Nukem board game.

The MPAA relented and RoboCop was a box office success. The irony of Verhoeven’s addition of the satirical commercials, however, is that their flagrant profiteering off of degradation and suffering made the violence in the rest of the film register as more callous, less remorseful, and the world that formed it less worthy of redemption. Verhoeven knew this. The MPAA didn’t.

There is a similar irony to watching RoboCop today, as world events have apparently transformed it from a cautionary tale into a rather twisted blueprint for salvation. Consider how riot cops dressed in 1990, three years after the film’s release:

And compare that to today:

(This is to say nothing of last month’s underreported story from Dubai, in which one of the world’s richest cities is now pilot-testing a robot to patrol and identify criminals. Though unarmed, the real-life RoboCop will be the first of many. If the pilot is successful then the aim is for the robots to eventually make up 25 percent of the city’s police force.)

Adopting the dominant logic regarding crime and policing today, RoboCop watches as a fun-mirror equivalent of how it was intended. The militarization of police is no longer read as an exacerbating factor in the rise of cruelty and crime. Instead, these points of reference can very be easily seen as reversed, the militarization justified by street thug depravity. There was certainly, in the midst of Reaganite “law and order” rhetoric, always the possibility of this misreading. But it is important to acknowledge that the a priori setting of RoboCop – a bankrupt Detroit hollowed and devastated – seemed far less real than it does today.

Verhoeven’s choice to set the film in Detroit was deliberate. There was, by 1987, plenty of worry regarding the future of America’s car hub, spurred on by jingoistic fears of Japan’s seemingly unstoppable entry into the world auto market. (The embarrassing third entry into the RoboCop franchise shamelessly tapped into this jingoism; thankfully Verhoeven was long gone by then.) No doubt, anyone who was honest about it could see that Detroit was in decline. But even as it was released twenty years – almost to the day – after the urban rebellions that rocked the city, RoboCop appeared to emphasize the “if” in “what if” by an extent far more measurable than today. That, along with an uninspired script, are likely why the 2014 remake failed to gain any substantial praise.

There is of course a narrative relentlessly pushed by establishment politics as to what caused the collapse of America’s fourth largest city and center of industry. The dominant take is a mixture of social irresponsibility and indulgence of greedy union workers swirled together into a world where the untamed hordes have to be kept in check. Any institutional excesses toward that end are merely a necessary evil.

It’s here that a few speculative thoughts are merited for the upcoming film Detroit. An attempt to portray the social explosion of the rebellion through the murders that took place at the Algiers Motel, critical reaction has been mostly positive. Plenty have noted how impossible it is to view the film without thinking of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile.

It’s more than a passing temptation to assume the worst of this film considering its director and writer. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal are the team also behind The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Whatever handwringing they as generally liberal artists might have exhibited over the notions of militarization were long finished by the time they began making these films. It would be truly monstrous of them to use one of the turning points in the transformation of civil rights into the Black Power movement as an excuse to promote that same notion. It seems clear that Bigelow and Boal acknowledge American racism as a reality, but the usage of the revolt as context (and therefore its being painted as somehow “senseless” instead of as a reaction to that reality) seems to create problems in the filmic portrayal of a structural problem.

K. Austin Collins at The Ringer:

In Boal’s script, it’s easier to imagine that there were good cops – even amid what the movie characterizes as systemic police violence – than it is to imagine just what effect this event had on the black community. History, it seems, stands in for all of that: We apparently already know how the community feels. This is how I felt about David Simon’s HBO limited series Show Me a Hero, too; it’s how I generally feel about the work of liberal artists who seem much more invested in wrestling with how to represent black victimhood than they are in wrestling with what comes after. These are two parts of the same story. And the gaps here more or less mean this movie isn’t really about black people as people, nor history as a lived experience, but is instead invested in a dutiful, “just the facts, ma’am” reenactment that pretends those other things are already a given. Boal, and Bigelow beside him, refuse to speculate about – or imagine – the rest.

If Collins’ review accurately captures the film’s shortcomings, then he is describing a blind spot that most of Hollywood suffers from: namely that it has no clue how to tackle themes related to the institutional or systemic because it accepts the fundamental narrative of those systems and institutions. Even when liberal filmmakers attempt to take on “issues,” they end up sliding into trite and sloppy ruminations on human nature.

This isn’t to pass premature judgment on Detroit, but merely to illustrate how well-meaning liberalism constructs an aesthetic rationale (a myth if you will) around its fundamental belief in how the world works. Bigelow and Boal exemplify this rationale. Zero Dark Thirty is not intended as a pro-torture movie, but purposefully or not it becomes one through the course of its story of a good person trying to do right in a world spun by vicious anti-Americanism. Likewise if the bigotry of Detroit is one of personal belief then we are left with demands that the system merely “do better” both in regulating its own racism and in quelling social unrest.

This logic constitutes a very slippery slope in a world where policing is increasingly used as a substitute for a social safety net. Basic rights like food and healthcare are increasingly framed as “benefits” and those who demand them as adding to social discord. Stability is found in social regulation, by force if need be. Rather than fix the broken infrastructure of New York City’s subway system that is leading to massive delays and overcrowding, MTA head Jake Lhota proposes removing seats and adding more cops. The decay of one institution allows for the further ascendance and bolstering of another that simply speeds up the process, creating new problems that exacerbate the old in all-too-familiar ways.

RoboCop, at its strongest, both illustrates and anticipates a step in this spiral. Its sympathetic portrayal of Alex Murphy, Anne Lewis and other Detroit police officers doesn’t reflect a sympathy for police so much as it poses a very unsettling question: What happens when the only industry with any stable investment left is that of policing? In real life, police unions behave more like organized crime than any kind of organization dedicated to the defense of labor, but in RoboCop they are pushing back against another, far worse institution directly fomenting and profiting off the chaos. RoboCop/Murphy is a conduit for this tension, an avatar both for a human nature that is far more complex than many of Verhoeven’s contemporaries can muster and what happens when this nature becomes entangled with a very inhuman (or at least anti-humanist) drive.

For sure, there is a lot of money to be made off chaos. And a lot of political clout to be built off playing it up. Donald Trump’s speech earlier this week made that very clear. Verhoeven, when he originally made RoboCop, intended its satire and grotesque violence as a method of achieving critical distance from the cycle that pathologizes violence both materially and ideologically.

The very real militarization of law enforcement in the thirty years since its release reveals how little it was listened to – or, perhaps less sensationally, how limited the impact of art really is on policy. The artistic pranksters who have for the past six years been planning and assembling a giant RoboCop statue in Detroit may have been couching it in at least a healthy dose of irony, but they also (perhaps inadvertently) exposed something rather troubling about the embrace of the idea by their city’s government and police department. In 2014, Detroit decided to put on a “RoboCop Day,” coinciding with the DVD release of the mediocre remake. A costumed RoboCop threw out the first pitch at Comerica Park on that day. Though ultimately canceled, a ceremony was planned to unveil the molds for the bronze statue… in front of Detroit’s police headquarters, and attended by hundreds of police officers. All less than a year after the city declared bankruptcy.

The point here is not to say that there is some conscious decision on the part of policy makers to mold the world in the image of a 1987 movie. Nor is it to say that Paul Verhoeven – a director of definite left sympathy – has the ear of these same politicians. Capitalists have their own angels of history, their own archetypes adopted and memed through their universe in order to mediate the wreckage and rubble thrown at their feet. With the late capitalist imagination becoming more and more enfeebled, is it too great of a stretch that, to some, the logic skewered in the figure of RoboCop becomes that angel?

This post originally appeared at an earlier blog that I used to run. I have migrated it with its original post date.

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