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‘Detroit’ vs. Everybody: Why Kathryn Bigelow’s Movie About the 1967 Riots Wasn’t Nominated for Any Oscars

February 23, 2018

The “Detroit” movie didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination. Here’s why one film critic thinks the movie got snubbed.

By Andrew Lapin

The Oscars are around the corner, and the lineup is stuffed with quality movies. But the lucky films are low on Michigan talents, except for Petoskey native Sufjan Stevens, who penned a heartbreaking nominated song for the coming-of-age romance “Call Me by Your Name.”

There was a time when it seemed the Detroit area would have a prominent local connection to the Oscar race: Kathryn Bigelow’s harrowing historical drama “Detroit.” Released last August, the movie was a detail-obsessed, painfully realistic retelling of the 1967 uprisings that shook the city to its core, timed to the 50th anniversary of the events, and the only significant work of pop culture to commemorate the anniversary.

Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal drew on original research and interviews to craft their narrative. Their focal point was the Algiers Motel incident, in which local Detroit police detained and tortured a group of black men and white women for hours on end, ultimately killing some of them, while searching for a nonexistent gun. Bigelow previously became the fourth-ever woman to win Best Director for “The Hurt Locker in 2008, which also won Best Picture and five other Oscars, and her and Boal’s follow-up “Zero Dark Thirty” was nominated for five Oscars.

Not only that, but in a year that once more saw an overwhelmingly white acting field (despite nominations for Daniel Kaluuya, Denzel Washington, Octavia Spencer and Mary J. Blige), “Detroit” featured two strong and completely overlooked performances from actors of color. Saginaw native Algee Smith is a soft-eyed marvel as Larry Reed, then the lead singer of rising Motown act The Dramatics, who the police trapped in the Algiers during the long night of terror. And “Star Wars hero John Boyega exudes charisma as Melvin Dismukes, the stoic security guard who bears witness to the police officers’ actions. Boyega’s performance questions how the hierarchy of uniform and authority functions in America: The cops don’t bother Melvin because he wears a uniform, even as they beat a black Vietnam veteran. And you can see Melvin’s internal conflict registering with every movement of Boyega’s head, as he glides like a ghost through spaces where he seems to be invincible. Until someone needs to get blamed, and he isn’t.

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Saginaw native Aglee Smith as Larry Reed, lead singer of The Dramatics, in “Detroit.” Photo courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.

Detroit movie

John Boyega as security guard Melvin Dismukes in “Detroit.” Photo courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.

Just as Melvin is bearing witness, the film is, too. In an industry notoriously squeamish when it comes to political statements and civil rights, “Detroit” was one of the movies about racist policing to be fully conceived, written, funded, directed and released since the 2013 founding of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Of course, simply listing a film’s landmarks doesn’t automatically make it worthwhile. And despite a strong 80 percent approval score from viewers on Rotten Tomatoes, “Detroit” quickly earned the ire of the press upon its release. The film inspired a torrent of outraged and negative critiques from publications as varied as the New Yorker, Huffington Post, Slate, RogerEbert.com, Al-Jazeera and Salon.

Objections to the movie came from academics and activists as well as film critics, and ran a broad spectrum, from the understandable to the questionable. Most prominently, they alleged that “Detroit” didn’t distinguish its black characters as fully rounded people, instead rendering them as vehicles of suffering for the benefit of the audience. There is some truth to this, as the film does often revel in its brutality and, like “Dunkirk,” barely spends any time with its characters before they become targets. It’s made with considerably less finesse than “Dunkirk,” though Bigelow and Boal seem to have allowed their anger at what they were filming to interfere with their own dedication to filming it. The fact that both the director and screenwriter are white was invoked frequently among the film’s detractors as a kind of explanation for these problems, but it would have been odd for the writer-director team that conceived of the movie and secured its financing to hand it over to someone else because they were the “wrong” race for the project.

Others criticized the film’s portrayal of its police officers. Angelica Jade Bastien at RogerEbert.com wrote that Bigelow does not “indict” or “grant historical context” to their racist actions — although it’s hard to imagine how a movie that shows the violent toll of racism as viscerally as this one wouldn’t be interpreted an “indictment” of that racism. Other sites like Slate ran articles for embellishing some historical details to better serve its narrative. It’s worth noting, though, that almost every history film does something similar, and that critics have defended others for similar crimes in the past, such as when Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” came under the same scrutiny during the 2015 Oscar campaign.

“FEATURE FILMS ARE NOT HISTORY,” the New York Times film critic A.O. Scott tweeted (in all caps) at the time. “THEY ARE HISTORICAL FICTION.”

Whatever the reasons, the “Detroit” damnation likely contributed to the film’s poor showing at the box office. According to Box Office Mojo, it earned a paltry $16 million against a $34 million budget. By the time awards season rolled around in December, not even a theatrical re-release could keep the public from forgetting it, or the event it was meant to pay tribute to. Instead of turning the Motor City into a point of national conversation at Oscar time, the film was blanked out of awards season, snubbed by the Academy and nearly every major critics group in the country … including Detroit’s own.

“Who is this movie made for?” more than one writer asked. There’s an answer: Us.

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Detroit artist Marlo Broughton was commissioned to paint murals around downtown Detroit to promote the movie “Detroit.” Photo courtesy of Marlo Broughton.

The Message for the Motor City

There were two different ways you could interpret the message of “Detroit.” The first one, and the most obvious, was that the film was about racism writ large, where the Algiers incident was meant to stand in for all the police who have killed young black men with little-to-no cause in the present day, and maybe even all the racial injustices that white people have inflicted since the dawn of the country.

The second interpretation was overlooked, by everyone including Bigelow herself, even though it’s right there in the title. “Detroit” is a movie about Detroit. And it has a special message for Metro Detroiters, whose families helped put the city on the map during its boomtown days but abandoned the tax base and school system once jobs dried up and their race and social standing allowed access to the suburbs.

Today we’re proud to call the city our own, and we’ll gladly head downtown for celebrations — like the annual Concert of Colors held last summer at Orchestra Hall, whose 2017 theme was the 50th anniversary of the uprisings. At that show, a diverse crowd sang and danced along to cover versions of John Lee Hooker’s “Motor City is Burning” (“My hometown burning down to the ground/Worser than Vietnam”). But we weren’t there when the fire set off. In fact, we helped create the kindling.

Other major cities have their own suburban-sprawl dynamics, and maybe their residents have a similar mix of hometown pride with the kind of comfortable buffer that only living outside the city limits can create. But Detroit’s bankruptcies, drastically uneven allocation of resources and recent history forged in blood intensify those emotions in an unparalleled way.

Detroit” captures this duology in a way that few movies about the city have before, even though it was primarily shot in Boston (thank Michigan’s recently aborted film tax incentives program for that). The movie creates a strong sense of negative space, an absence of social harmony and public accountability in every aspect of the city, from the looting in the streets (where tanks likely assembled in a Detroit factory tear down the road to menace its citizens) to the sham trial that acquits the officers. Early on there’s a scene where Reed and The Dramatics are set to perform during a Motown showcase at the Fox. The crowd, like the one that attended the Concert of Colors 50 years later at the same theatre, is diverse, engaged and happy. Then the unrest begins, the lights come up and the cops order everyone to return home. We don’t know where everyone in the crowd will go, but it’s a safe bet that not everyone will be staying in Detroit.

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A scene from the “Detroit” movie. Photo courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.

Later, when the U.S. Army and Michigan National Guard — deployed at the request of Michigan’s own governor to “restore law and order” — stumbles onto the police torture den at the Algiers, its members pointedly look the other way, even though they outrank the city’s law enforcement and could put a stop to the horror. It’s another example of how the film calls the hierarchy of American uniform into question. “This is strictly police business,” one of the troops says to the officer in charge of the carnage, before leaving. The country knew the Motor City was burning, and called it police business.

This quality is what’s missing from the discussion around “Detroit” — the fact that you don’t have to see the cause of horror onscreen to know that it’s there. Despite — or, perhaps, because of — Bigelow’s lack of Motor City bonafides, her movie speaks directly to Metro Detroiters, the largely white, largely middle-to-upper-class suburban descendants of the generations that once molded the city they eventually fled from. I saw the film as a challenge to Detroit suburbanites. It challenges our need to feel like we belong to the city without the city demanding anything from us; it rebukes our fantasy of urban harmony when we sing along to “Dancing in the Street.” We are who “Detroit” was made for, because we had the most to gain from the conditions that created its horrors, whether we realized it or not. And we have the most to learn from them now.

That’s a weird thing for any movie to “celebrate,” with Oscars or any other accolade. So maybe “Detroit” was just never the kind of film that would win awards, or much gratitude from anyone across the political spectrum. But in its challenges to Metro Detroit’s comfort zone, it might be aiming for something else entirely: correcting the record.

Before the cops who killed the civilians at the Algiers could be tried and acquitted, by all-white juries, of all murder and conspiracy charges brought against them, civic leaders in Detroit held a People’s Tribunal of the case at the Shrine of the Black Madonna church on the west side. Jury members, including Rosa Parks, found the policemen guilty of murder, venting their anger and frustrations at a corrupt, rotting justice system through a fantasy court. They might have been merely screaming into the air, had they not collectively decided that what they did that day had value, treating the event with enough gravitas to hand down its memories to future generations.

So where is that people’s tribunal in “Detroit?” It is the movie itself. A reenactment, truthfully if artlessly staged, can deliver a kind of justice. Even if it’s 50 years too late.

Andrew Lapin grew up in Huntington Woods and is a film critic based in Chicago. He reviews movies for NPR and Vulture.

See the full list of 2018 Academy Award nominees.

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