Oscar season is officially here. In addition to The Big Sick, July has delivered another serious best picture contender, this time from master director Kathryn Bigelow. Detroit, however, is far from casual entertainment. Its subject matter will leave you shocked, agitated, exhausted and infuriated, but in the vein of films like Schindler’s List – it is mandatory viewing.
Detroit is the latest in a three-tiered assault from film honcho Kathryn Bigelow, and it is her deadliest blow yet. As the first woman to direct an Oscar-winning film, Bigelow is an incendiary trailblazer for women. Her content frequently defies gender expectations with testosterone-fueled intensity. While far from lacking in femininity herself, she maintains an iron grip on the output of her exquisite work.
In 2009, she nabbed best picture with her explosive classic The Hurt Locker, which focused on a U.S. bomb squad in Iraq. In 2012, she nearly seized it again with the equally sophisticated Zero Dark Thirty, which dramatized the manhunt and assassination of Osama Bin Laden. While The Hurt Locker was a volatile masterwork of suspense, Zero Dark Thirty featured a haunting gravitas in silence. Detroit returns Bigelow to the role she perfected in The Hurt Locker, and she commandeers another meticulous orchestration of chaos.
Bigelow’s latest offering is her most unforgettable work yet, but it faces a tougher road to widespread acclaim. Similar to her previous film, she has no qualms tackling controversy. While there were those who took offense to her depiction of torture in portraying the search for Bin Laden, I am in the camp that believes that omitting these details from the account would be morally reprehensible. I view Bigelow’s journalistic presentation to be a fascinating discussion piece handled with finesse.
Detroit differs from Zero Dark Thirty in that it doesn’t seek to merely inspire debate, but very clearly and deliberately intends to shock and provoke in its mission to educate. In our age of severe political polarization, some would argue the film’s extreme approach will have ill effect on those who are in direst need of its message. To the contrary, I would assert that the film’s horrific topic demands it, and it effectively communicates the combative outrage of the city’s dissenters that motivated the riots.
Bigelow’s newest production is set in late July 1967, during the week of violent protests that broke out following a police raid of an unlicensed bar that escalated Motor City into anarchy. Detroit begins from a broad perspective, and an informative approach that establishes the factors fueling the destruction, then proceeds to hone in on the key players involved in what progresses to be the film’s primary focus: the Algiers motel incident, where police murdered three black men, and terrorized several other tenants in attempt to flush out a perceived sniper.
The events depicted in the Algiers case will elicit no less than utter horror and outrage at what Bigelow proposes took place. The three police officers most at fault faced charges including assault, conspiracy, and murder, and were found not guilty in a ruling that has been reviled by history. However, the finer details of the case remain open to interpretation, and the film’s final title acknowledges the creative liberties that were necessary to dramatize this appalling affair.
Journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal helms the script for Detroit in his third collaboration with Bigelow. The choice to implicate blame in a case whose definite specifics remain ambiguous enters questionable territory, but Boal’s established reputation of meticulous credibility relieves concern. Survivors of the Algiers incident were consulted in the development of the film, and Bigelow’s studious attention to detail should dispel any doubt. The victims of this infamous circumstance were clearly failed by the justice system, and the exposure of their stories can serve some purpose in making amends.
With a large scale, and a wide cast, Detroit still manages to offer intimate characterizations and refined performances. Bigelow’s players aren’t simplified as blameless victims or evil incarnate, but fascinate as morally complex agents, whether they are a cop gunning down a shoplifter, or merely a bystander. Algee Smith and Will Poulter’s work are Oscar-worthy in a sturdy roster that also includes John Boyega, Jason Mitchell, Anthony Mackie, John Krasinski, Kaitlyn Dever and Hannah Murray.
More Malcolm X than Dr. King in its approach, Detroit recklessly forces discussion that is just as searingly relevant 50 years later. Due to its ugly subject matter, it won’t be a box office hit, and it will face challenges courting awards. Bigelow’s latest film isn’t a patriotic celebration of militaristic success like Zero Dark Thirty; in contrast, it’s an account of atrocities committed in uniform. It evokes Sam Peckinpah in its raw presentation of violence and heinous crime, and it is impeccable in its portrayal of an unforgivable event America would be remiss to ignore.