The release of the “Detroit” trailer is a reminder of just how much we need a film from screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow right now. The film is a look at the police raid of an unlicensed, after-hours bar that triggered what is known at the 1967 Detroit Riot. While the details of the production have been kept under wraps — including, until now, the title itself — today’s two-minute-plus trailer shows Boal and Bigelow are hyper-focused on the moments that led to the citywide explosion of racial tension.
If you have listened to Season 2 of Serial, or watched “The Hurt Locker” or “Zero Dark Thirty,” then you know why journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal is the man to tackle this subject. Obsessed with the seemingly small details and psychology behind his subjects’ motivations, Boal has found his way inside the key moments that triggered these events.
This type of history and background work is often better suited for a book, an 8,000-word New Yorker article, or an 11-part podcast; movies are a horrible medium for such complex stories. But Boals’ research-heavy approach seems to have again given Bigelow the grounding she needs to explore the events’ emotional foundations.
A great deal of the trailer’s focus lies in moments of intensity where you can feel the pressure of characters in seemingly dead-end situations. This is where Bigelow is at her best. She’s a master of camera movement – not only because she excels at visceral action scenes, but also because her camera is always serves to place the audience within the intensity of characters needing to make difficult, split-second decisions.
This is why she’s ideal for making historical scenarios so engaging. After the invasion of Iraq, there were a number of subpar movies that tried to capture the complexity of how and why the U.S. was in a constant Catch-22 in the Middle East. These films doled out context and force-fed exposition that led to preachy, boring stories, with a parade of stock characters meant to represent the conflicting interests and forces at work.
With “The Hurt Locker,” Boal and Bigelow’s first collaboration, Bigelow found the perfect emotional entry point for using cinema to give the audience an emotional understanding of the impossibility of our being in Iraq. A special team deployed to disarm IEDs drives toward reported explosives. The soldiers keep a careful eye on the Iraqis on the sidelines — when one picks up a cell phone, the young soldiers are forced to wonder if they going to detonate the bomb or if they’re just making a call. Do you shoot? How do you win hearts and minds in this situation?
These were all questions that came streaming into the audiences minds as we sat on the edge of our seats, experiencing the confines of armored tanks with young American soldiers facing these impossible decisions. Bigelow didn’t need to zoom out to give each moment a greater historical and political context to capture the complexity at hand. It was baked into the conflict itself.
Obviously, America’s historical problems with race require this same type of sophistication that is sorely missing from bigger Hollywood productions, but that’s not the only void “Detroit” will fill in the months to come. As I’ve recently discussed, this summer we will again be subjected to blockbuster movies made by studios who put a premium on selling bigger and more explosive spectacles to an international market, rather than director-driven action sequences that pull the audience into the moment.
“Detroit” stands a chance at being a brainy blockbuster when both smart storytelling and escapism are under duress. Its August 4 release can’t come soon enough.