It’s not hard to imagine a world where “Detroit” stood in the thick of the Oscar race.
And why not? The film covers a devastating riot which left 43 people dead, hundreds wounded and the racial wounds of a city inflamed for years. The film’s director, Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow, has an unusually keen eye for pathos amidst chaos.
In a year where the white supremacist movement made headlines and racial unrest blazed anew it’s easy to pick “Detroit” as a serious awards contender.
Only that isn’t happening. Not even close.
The film earned a tepid $16 million on a $34 million budget. Reviews were mostly positive — 83 percent “Fresh,” to be exact. Still, the film didn’t generate the kind of glowing notices that make Oscar voters sit up straight.
The film stumbled over another problem unique to 2017. Bigelow, for all her directorial chops, is white. In today’s cultural climate that’s seen as a negative when telling a story tied to the black experience.
Need another example? Consider This New Yorker headline:
The Immoral Artistry of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit”
It’s not just clickbait phrasing, though. The article dubs the film “a moral failure.”
Movies aren’t made with intentions, though; they’re made with people and with equipment, and what Bigelow has her actors do for the benefit of the camera is repellent to imagine.
The article rages on … and on.
As I watched this protracted scene of captivity, terror, torture, and murder in the Algiers Motel, I wondered: How could they film this? How could a director tell an actor to administer these brutal blows, not just once but repeatedly? How could a director instruct another actor to grimace and groan, to collapse under the force of the blows? How could a director even feel the need to make audiences feel the physical pain of the horrific, appalling police actions?
That is what modern filmmakers face from august publications like The New Yorker.
The film itself can, and will, be absorbed by audiences who won’t go near that rhetorical rabbit hole. “Detroit [Blu-ray]” arrives on home video (Blu-ray, DVD and Movies Anywhere) ironically just as Oscar season is reaching a fever pitch.
The accompanying Blu-ray extras are fascinating albeit all too brief. Each clocks in around two minutes, yet what’s missing may be more intriguing.
The cast and crew don’t bring modern politics into the conversation. Nor does a certain President get aggressively name-checked. The talking heads stick to the riot in question, the witnesses who helped shape the film and the hope for a better, brighter Detroit.
For context, here’s how History.com captures the event in question:
By the time the bloodshed, burning and looting ended after five days, 43 people were dead, 342 injured, nearly 1,400 buildings had been burned and some 7,000 National Guard and U.S. Army troops had been called into service.
The Blu-ray extras touch on that tragedy as well as the methods used to bring it to the screen.
- “The Truth of Detroit” describes the city circa 1967 as a “powder keg.” We hear from a woman who survived the riots describe how a bullet sailed past her head during one point in the melee.
- “The Cast of Detroit” offers the standard observations from the cast, including this vow from co-star Algee Smith -- “The only thing on my brain was making sure I got it right.”
- “The Invasion of Detroit” lets Rep. John Conyers, Jr. who was there during the riots, describe the scene. “It was like an invasion,” says the longtime congressman, who recently vowed to resign following a sex abuse scandal. “Detroit” screenwriter Mark Boal, a frequent Bigelow collaborator, shared his shock at the notion of U.S. army tanks roaming the streets of a major American city during the riots.
- “The Hope of Detroit” finds Bigelow sharing her thoughts on the film’s ultimate impact. “My hope is that the film could stimulate greater conversation,” she says. Detroit Police Chief James Craig offers context to the riots’ fallout, something that’s often missing from modern conversations on the topic of race. “This is our history. It’s where we came from. But we are not 1967,” he says.