Ever since Kathryn Bigelow became the first — and, so far, only — woman to win the best director Oscar for “The Hurt Locker” in 2009, her career has been perceived in a different light. The filmmaker behind such beloved escapism as “Point Break,” “Strange Days,” and “Near Dark” took a sharp turn into bracing, topical thrillers culled from real-life events, continuing that focus with the masterful “Zero Dark Thirty” and now the racially charged “Detroit,” which opens wide this week.
Still, the specter of her earlier work continues to work its way through popular culture, most notably when Warner Bros. released a remake of “Point Break” in 2015. The movie was a box-office failure in the U.S. and faced poor reviews. Bigelow’s opinion? She never watched it.
“I didn’t see it,” she said and laughed, declining to elaborate. However, she did single out original “Point Break” star Keanu Reeves, noting his recent successes with the “John Wick” franchise. “It’s exciting to see Keanu do that,” she said. “I’m glad people like that are still out there in the world.”
Asked if she’s turned her back on genre efforts, Bigelow demurred. “I would never say that,” she said. “They’re a lot of fun to do, just as they’re fun to watch. It’s a great medium in that it can be so elastic and fluid.”
However, she’s far more keen on using the elements of suspense and action to address bigger issues, as her last three films demonstrate. “At the end of the day, entertainment needs a shred of messaging to it. That’s a real motivator,” she said. “The genre element is captivating and attractive, both as a viewer and a filmmaker, but using it as a vehicle to move a conversation forward or at least shine a light on a conversation is extremely exciting.”
For “Detroit,” that proved a challenge. The movie recounts the 1967 Algiers Motel incident in which three innocent black men were killed, allegedly by a group of young white police officers, against the backdrop of widespread protests against police brutality. The centerpiece takes place during a prolonged showdown between violent officers and several terrified young black men forced to stare at the wall as they’re subjected to a brutal interrogation. Bigelow ratchets the tension, but felt confident her approach wouldn’t register as crass.
“You do it very carefully with the perspective of as much research as possible,” she said. “I had eyewitnesses who felt that the real event was more extreme than what we were photographing, so I can only hope that what the film achieves is an opportunity to humanize what — for you and I, at least — would be unthinkable.”
That didn’t make “Detroit” an easy sell — the movie was produced by Annapurna Pictures, which is also handling distribution — but Bigelow’s used to that. “It’s challenging material, but so were ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and ‘Hurt Locker,'” she said. “When you work in this space where entertainment alone is not enough, you’re using it as a delivery method for meaningful messaging, so you’re operating in a more journalistic mode. I think if it’s a good story and there’s significant personal commitment from the filmmaker, it will find a way to reach an audience.”
Still, she hasn’t lost touch with the genre space. Once the promotional tour for “Detroit” winds down, she was eager to see “Baby Driver” and “Wonder Woman.” “I love Edgar Wright, and Patty Jenkins is tremendous,” she said. “There’s some really exciting material out there. I promise you that the second I have a break, I will endeavor to see it.”
She casts a wide net when it comes to the kind of films she supports. “Listen, I’m always encouraged by the commitment and dedication of a filmmaker who lives in their material,” she said. “Usually, that belief translates to the screen and therefore the audience. That’s what moves me — truth and integrity… there’s an integrity with respect to the choice of material by the filmmaker and how he or she realizes the story.”
“Detroit” opens nationwide on Friday.