‘Detroit’: Annapurna’s Pulse-Pounding Debut Release Aims for Oscar Gold

Oscars: 'Detroit' Aims for Gold But
Francois Duhamel/Annapurna

With films like Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” Spike Jonze’s “Her” and David O. Russell’s “American Hustle,” producer and Hollywood patron Megan Ellison has navigated the Oscar circuit with aplomb. She would no doubt like to come out swinging with a sure-fire contender in her first distribution event under the Annapurna banner. Does she have one in Bigelow’s latest film, “Detroit?”

Let’s begin by making one thing abundantly clear: Regarding this and any future assessment of a film’s prospects with the motion picture Academy, it’s worth keeping in mind that around 20 percent of the group has joined in just the last four years, thanks to an ongoing inflation of annual new membership invites. It’s quite alright to say “I don’t know what an Oscar movie is anymore,” though few who trade in this work will have the guts to do so. Sureness is part of the gig, you see.

But I’m not sure when it comes to “Detroit.” My instinct walking out of a screening a few weeks ago, however, was that it’s more likely to connect piecemeal than on the whole — and even then, with caveats.


Detroit John Boyega

Film Review: Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Detroit’

Barry Ackroyd’s photography marries fleeting iconography with an on-the-ground vérité aesthetic. But that can be an acquired taste even within his branch.

William Goldenberg’s editing ratchets the tension in the film’s mid-section, detailing with horror-film tropes the events that took place at the Algiers Motel on the night of July 25, 1967. But it’s taxed by the overriding structure screenwriter Mark Boal has employed.

Boal’s work as a journalist excels, pulling together countless threads to conceive something approaching the truth. But his work as a storyteller is burdened somewhat by the desire to focus so intently on the Algiers incident, which feels like an episode in something much larger.

And of the cast, Will Poulter’s racist Detroit flatfoot commands, at once, disgust and attention, while Algee Smith’s portrait of a soul singer’s innocence lost becomes the broken heart at the film’s center. But who can say how long ensemble performances from an early-August release can hold on as the fall prestige glut hits?

Clearly, there are elements to glom onto for the various branches of the Academy. But if “Detroit” is going to catch a stride as a best picture player, it will do so by tapping the broader conversation taking place outside its frame about race in America.

I read very closely as reviews landed over the weekend, taking note of how critics wrangled with what’s on the screen versus what’s not. (I was particularly intrigued by two drastically different takeaways from trade reviewers: “It’s a grim tale with no catharsis,” read one. It’s “a dramatic experience that is nothing short of a catharsis,” read Variety‘s own.) Every instance — of course — spoke to the current zeitgeist. After all, it would be impossible and indeed irresponsible to consider “Detroit” in a vacuum. So, regardless of its flaws, that will be a virtue in the film’s quiver as it goes before an Academy very focused, of late, on how its own whiteness is perceived and contextualized.


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Then again, bear in mind the increased internationalism of the organization. Racism is everywhere, but it isn’t as infused with the national psyche as it is on these shores. Will a tale that echoes through the decades from the burning heart of one of our great cities resonate the same way from member to member? It’s an interesting question, and yes, I’m very aware of the reigning best picture champion, a movie that frankly transcended the conversation as a masterful portrait of humanism and empathy.

And though I hate to write anyone’s dirty tricks playbook for them, some have already touched on the lack of a filmmaker of color on the project. Could that end up being used against it?

Finally, not unlike Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” “Detroit” is an experiential movie, though the separate residue of those experiences obviously differs considerably — pride in one instance, shame and anger in the other. Intriguingly, though, the films share something else: both Nolan (“Inception”) and Bigelow (“Zero Dark Thirty”) have been unceremoniously ignored for films otherwise embraced by the Academy. That could count for a lot.

So again, I don’t know. “Detroit” is not simplistic. Bigelow and Boal aren’t really capable of simplicity. But neither, at this point, is the Academy. To borrow a phrase from Whitman, the organization contains more and more multitudes with every passing year. The only thing that is assured is a long road ahead for this film, because an Aug. 4 release leaves a lot of time — for it to deepen, to evaporate, to marshal its cause, to be flicked from the field of play.

Whatever you anticipate, just don’t be too sure.

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  1. Paul White says:

    Every instance of critic reviews referred to the current zeitgeist. And what is that? That every instance of a cop unjustly killing a black person is in the headlines. And how many such headlines have there been in the past year? Zero. At most a trickle. So, yeah the current zeitgeist is that blacks are suffering a great injustice – from something that basicslly never happens. Nice going, Hollywood lefties. (Signed, a former lefty.)

  2. 50gary says:

    Had I not been with friends i would have walked out on this movie. Although the “BAD Cop”character did a good acting job.

  3. Bill B. says:

    This is not a subject matter that holds a lot of interest for me, but I thought The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty were both excellent films, so that might get me into a theater.

  4. millerfilm says:

    Well, it’s black movie about how awful police and white people are. So, it’s got a prime spot for the politically-correct Oscar race. (See? Even “race” is in “Oscar race.”) :-)

  5. Joe says:

    More people died in gang violence than this riot. I know it’s not an easy thing for Hollywood to admit, but it’s the new travesty that you have a segment of society that refuses to act civilized. They will keep doing these special films and tv shows about the ‘racial injustice’ that went on, but those are things to learn from, not dwell on forever. Most people are sick of this stuff.

  6. Cinephile says:

    It’s just too early to tell if Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” will be a player in the Academy Awards. There are a lot of potential films to come this year. Let’s just say, it’s going to have a large mountain to keep climbing up through from August 4th until the end of the year. Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” on the other hand has a much better chance to be a contender from the consensual impression I’m getting but again, there are many more potential films to come as the race to the Academy Awards begins to heat up in late September through December.

  7. Egon says:

    Hurt Locker and Zero dark thirty exemplified how government has control over scripts and there by keeps up the false narrative. Oh and by the way I liked Hurt Locker. However, I disagree with the Zero Dark Thirty narrative, because Osama bin Laden died in December, 2001 a fact (yes a fact)! So if you want to get some movies made there are plenty of money and script advice at the government trough.

    • Jacen says:

      Ah yes, the tinfoil brigade heard from, even in something that has no relevance. Care to back up your contentions with legitimate, reputable, verifiable sources? The idea that the government controls all narrative is not a new one, but it’s like the myth of us using only 10% of our brains: appealing to losers and failures who wish that their lives could have worked out better IF ONLY . . . .

  8. Dan says:

    What happened in Detroit at these riots is nothing compared to what happened at the TULSA RACE RIOT in 1921….that’s one of the most shameful chapters in American history.

    More than 300 people died, mostly black people, who were killed and lynched by white police men. They burned down a whole quarter of the city by throwing fire bombs from planes on the roofs.

    It was the richest black community in America & the white racists wanted to destroy their competition.

    It’s amazing how long this event has been taboo.
    Someone should make a feature film about Tulsa.

    If “Detroit” is a success, do “Tulsa” next.
    People need to know what happened.

  9. VforValmont says:

    Just to put in public that I still consider Bigelow was the best director of the Zero Dark year.

    • Larry says:

      Kathryn Bigelow would only be the “Best Director” that year, if the Oscars were about celebrating the best political propaganda films.

      What she did in “Zero dark Thirty” is unforgivable: She rationalized, excused and justified torture in a subtle way, arguing that it ‘worked’, while everyone can read, that it didn’t. The simple truth is, that Mark Boal and she were fed lies by the US military and the CIA to make them look better.

      They have tremendous ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ bargaining power when it comes to produce big movies that feature military hardware, because they know, that you can’t really do your movie without them.

      And you won’t get anything, if you don’t show them your screenplay first and listen to their ‘advice’.
      That’s how it works, folks.

      Truth is, you can’t make a commercial big budget movie AGAINST the US military in the United States.
      (You can only do that on a very limited budget with private equity, like Brian de Palma did it with “Redacted”, but you won’t get any wide distribution.)

      We talk about Leni Riefenstahl with disgust, but she didn’t have much freedom and was totally dependent on the Nazi government funding in a totalitarian state. Ms. Bigelow had a choice, but she slowly got corrupted by the process of producing such a big film with CIA and US military ‘aid’.

      I feel more disgust for Ms. Bigelow.

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