You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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

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.

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.

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.

More Film

  • Three Identical Strangers

    Film News Roundup: 'Three Identical Strangers' Feature Adaptation Taps 'Bohemian Rhapsody' Writer

    In today’s film news roundup, “Three Identical Strangers” is moving ahead, Skeet Ulrich has been cast with Tom Hanks, the “Minions” sequel has been titled and “Vegas Dave” is getting a movie. MCCARTEN ATTACHED “Bohemian Rhapsody” screenwriter Anthony McCarten will write and produce the feature adaptation of the documentary “Three Identical Strangers.” Raw, Film4 and [...]

  • Bong Joon-ho, Choi Woo-shik. Director Bong

    Bong Joon-ho's 'Parasite' Earns Five-Minute Cannes Ovation

    Just days after the announcement of the selection of “Parasite” for main competition at the Cannes Film Festival, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho warned members of the local press not to expect his film to win the Palme d’Or. He also suggested that the film was “hyper local” and possibly difficult for foreign audiences to [...]

  • 'Parasite' Review: A Brilliant, Bleak Bong

    Cannes Film Review: 'Parasite'

    A laugh turns into a snarl which gets stuck in the throat like a sob — or an arrow through the neck — in Bong Joon-ho’s latest wild, wild ride, “Parasite.” On paper, that might not sound so very different from the experience of watching Bong’s “Snowpiercer,” “Memories of Murder” “The Host” or “Okja.” The [...]

  • 'Maradona' Director Asif Kapadia Talks About

    'Diego Maradona' Director Asif Kapadia Talks About His Cannes Doc

    Global sports icon and lauded soccer player Diego Maradona’s dramatic life intrigued Oscar and BAFTA winner director Asif Kapadia (“Amy,” “Senna”) while he was still in film school. “It had an incredibly strong backstory and extremes of good and dark,” he recalls. Fast-forward to more than 20 years later as his feature documentary, “Diego Maradona” [...]

  • the long walk

    Stephen King's 'The Long Walk' Film Taps 'Scary Stories to Tell' Director

    New Line has tapped André Øvredal to direct the feature adaptation of Stephen King’s dystopian thriller “The Long Walk.” Øvredal’s credits include mystery thriller “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” and the upcoming horror film “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” co-written and produced by Guillermo del Toro and releasing on Aug. 9. James Vanderbilt [...]

  • Central Partnership Inks Multiple Deals on

    Cannes: Central Partnership Inks Multiple Deals on 'Billion' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Russia’s Central Partnership has closed several territory sales on Roman Prygunov’s comedy crime thriller “Billion.” Central Partnership has sold the movie to China (Jetsen Huashi Media), Turkey (ATV), France and French-speaking territories (Trade Media), Bulgaria (A Plus Film) and Baltics (GPI). The film centers on banker Matvey Levin, who goes to great lengths to avoid [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content