“Bushwick,” “Detroit,” And When Timeliness Isn't Enough

Two weeks ago, white supremacists and neo-Confederates marched through Charlottesville, clashing with counterprotesters, resulting in the death of Heather D. Heyer. This Friday, white supremacists and neo-Confederates will launch a brutal attack against New York City onscreen, all for discomfiting fun, in Bushwick. The indie action movie envisions Brooklyn being invaded by armed, racist Southern separatists who’ve branded themselves the “New American Coalition,” and whose stated intentions to “live our lives the true American way” involves less of the pesky “ethnodiversity” they consider a societal weakness. Their private militia pours into designated areas around the country, including, however improbably, the titular neighborhood, only to find the locals putting up a lot more resistance than they’d anticipated.

When directors Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott and writers Nick Damici and Graham Reznick put the project together back in 2015, they couldn’t have expected that, by the time Bushwick made its way to limited theaters and VOD this week, it would end up coming across as pulpy exploitation of very current fears about resurging white nationalism. The low-budget, blue state answer to Red Dawn — which plays less campy than the description above might suggest — stars Brittany Snow as Lucy, a naive grad student who’s headed, Red Riding Hood–style, to her grandmother’s house, when she emerges from the subway to find that during her L train ride, the borough has erupted into warfare.

Dave Bautista is Stupe, the janitor into whose company Lucy stumbles, who has a tragic but convenient past as a badass marine and medic. Together, the pair wind their way through firefights in the streets in real time, by way of a strung-together series of long takes that’s more laborious than it is impressive. As they search for safety and an explanation, what emerges is a half-baked premise that builds up white nationalists in order to allow everyone else to go to literal war with them.

Bushwick‘s filmmakers are aware that their work has become increasingly similar to current events: In the press notes, after citing recent terrorist attacks and Rick Perry’s Texas secession comments as inspirations, they add “as we finished the long process of post-production, we again watch as the United States becomes even more politically, economically and racially divided because of the 2016 Presidential election.”

But instead of accruing weight through its glancing gestures toward real events, Bushwick falls into an uncanny valley of relevance, too self-serious and close to exposed nerves to be dumb fun, and too sloppy to be provocative. The protest imagery the film borrows and the way it’s set in a historically Latino, rapidly gentrifying area just highlight its cynicism. Bushwick rails against violence while reveling in it, having its villains spout racist rhetoric while portraying most of its own characters of color as criminal caricatures. It’s an unintended hour and half treatise on how timeliness alone doesn’t equal significance.

And that’s a lesson worth taking in, even though the movie isn’t. Timeliness has gained allure in the era of Trump, when real world turmoil presses in so urgently from all sides. When it comes to talking about TV and film, the urge to see reflections of the present day has been not just irresistible, but also a way of justifying why these things continue to deserve attention. In the last month alone, Terminator 2, The Dead Zone, Intervention, and The Tick have all been described by different outlets as “more timely than ever.”

But timeliness isn’t, in itself, a fundamental positive, not unless it’s put to use for artistic or political resonance to make a worthy point. That’s true for more than just a throwaway movie like Bushwick, which makes garbled references to gun ownership, diversity, and 9/11, and yet has nothing in particular to say.

It’s true, too, for something like Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, which despite its Oscar-winning director and overall gleam of prestige, has faded rapidly from the box office and from public discussion, failing to draw audiences with its portrayal of the deaths of three young black men at the hands of police in 1967. Analyses of the film’s underperformance have stressed its timeliness, the way it took on themes relevant to present day activism, the way it offered up its enraging, lesser-known historical incident in deftly dramatized fashion.

Detroit was marketed to emphasize that same angle, with imagery of baton-wielding police officers facing a crowd of black civilians that evokes photos from Ferguson. But moviegoers obviously didn’t agree on Detroit‘s importance — didn’t agree as to how indispensable a scripted portrayal of a 50-year-old event of racialized police violence really is when similar events are still happening today, and when they’re streamed online. The timeliness of Detroit was offered up like something medicinal, something that should be downed because it’s good for you, though the film never justifies why that is, and why the past, in its case, illuminates the present instead of just emphasizing how little has changed.

It’s the reason the uproar over HBO’s proposed Confederate, which is set in a world in which the Confederate States of America successfully seceded and continues to practice slavery, has such piquancy — because the creatives behind it have tried to use timeliness as a shield for its much criticized alternate-history scenario. Confederate is science fiction that, in the words of co-creator D.B. Weiss, “can show us how this history is still with us in a way no strictly realistic drama ever could,” a sentiment that presumes that its audience is not living with the consequences and remnants of that history already. That’s a justification that’s exclusionary at worst, and, at best, evidence that the nascent and still-in-development project uses some notion of generalized relevance as validation for its existence. And that, alone, is not enough, nor is Bushwick‘s vacant fantasies of white nationalists attacking so that they can be shot at.