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Though it’s not yet even August, awards pundits may have just seen their second film in a week that eventually will be a best picture Oscar nominee. Hot on the heels of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk — which opened Friday, and for which there was an overflow and very appreciative crowd at the Academy on Saturday night — comes another intense, albeit very different, historical drama, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, the story of a largely forgotten act of police brutality against a group of young black men, and two young white women, in Michigan’s biggest city during the infamous riot of 1967.
Detroit showcases first-rate filmmaking, particularly the sizable portion of it that’s set in the Algiers Motel, into which a lot of people and action are packed without ever becoming disorienting. Credit for this certainly goes to Bigelow, as well as her large ensemble of young actors — the standouts are John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), as the embodiment of good, and Will Poulter (The Revenant), as the embodiment of evil — and her collaborators, in particular, production designer Jeremy Hindle, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, film editor William Goldenberg and composer James Newton Howard.
But most with whom I’ve spoken about Detroit agree that it’s not quite as polished as Bigelow’s last two films, which, like this one, were written and co-produced by Mark Boal: The Hurt Locker (2009), which won best picture and for which Bigelow became the first woman ever to win best director; and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), which was nominated for best picture, but for which she controversially was denied a best director nom. The prevailing sentiment seems to be that her new film starts off awkwardly (with an animated sequence), goes on too long (143 minutes) and lets the steam out of its pressure cooker in a predictable and unnecessary third act.
Ultimately, though, Detroit’s Oscar prospects may have as much to do with the Academy’s interest, or lack thereof, in using its spotlight to call attention to the issue of police brutality as it has to do with the attributes of the film itself. (Crash, the surprise best picture winner in 2006, dealt with similar subject matter, though it was set in Los Angeles and centered on fictional events.) With a membership of unprecedented diversity at a time when racial tensions are running high and incidents of police brutality are reported regularly, there may be an added appeal in honoring Detroit.
Alternatively, voters looking to highlight today’s racial tensions could line up behind another massively acclaimed early release, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which employs a different, perhaps more widely palatable approach — satire — and, unlike Detroit, was made by a filmmaker of color. Rightly or wrongly, it must be noted that there has been some backlash in the past when white filmmakers have made films about pivotal moments in black history, most famously Rob Reiner’s Ghosts of Mississippi (1996) and Steven Spielberg‘s Amistad (1997).
Some other things to consider: Detroit is the first film to be distributed by Annapurna Pictures, and it remains to be seen how well that upstart operation, run by Megan Ellison, who also is a producer of Detroit, can independently navigate the awards season. And, even though the membership of the Academy has changed greatly over the past two years (one-fifth of the entire organization joined during that timespan), there is no guarantee that the Academy’s long-standing genre-biases have changed as well — and, in terms of genre, Detroit shares much more in common with Straw Dogs than, say, Moonlight.
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