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.