This week sees the release of Detroit, the latest film from director Kathryn Bigelow. The film has been widely praised for its tension and terror, and its US success has even prompted talk of Oscar nominations – familiar territory for Bigelow, the only woman ever to win Best Director at the Academy Awards. Once again, Bigelow has waded into a tense, violent, largely male world and come out with an impossibly gripping drama.
Detroit follows a group of young people who stayed at the Algiers motel in Detroit during the 1967 12th Street riot. When police and National Guard troops heard shots apparently coming from the Algiers, they became convinced there was a sniper on the premises and stormed in. The residents were lined up against the wall and taken one-by-one into rooms where they were interrogated and beaten. Some were killed, and all left traumatised by the night.
Bigelow assembled a ridiculously talented cast to dramatise the incident, and the first two-thirds of the film are thrummingly tense, playing more like a horror movie than the usual awards-baiting drama. The stars include John Boyega, as a private security guard trying to defuse the situation; Will Poulter, as the racist cop responsible for most of the violence; Algee Smith as an idealistic singer trying to get a Motown deal; Hannah Murray as a party girl; and Anthony Mackie as a Vietnam veteran embroiled in this incident. The director and her writing partner Mark Boal involved some of the survivors in filming and tried to keep things rooted in fact, and it’s another compelling cinematic account of white supremacist wrongdoing in America.
Even in the two (of ten) of her films with female leads, Blue Steel and Zero Dark Thirty, she focuses on hard-as-nails women in a largely-male environment
The film isn’t perfect. For a film that might read as an echo of the Black Lives Matter cause, dealing as it does with police brutality and overreach, the film inevitably drew criticism from the usual right-wing sources, but it also fell short for many on the left. African-American critics, in particular, have called out the film for focusing too much on black people as victims of white brutality rather than independent people with internal lives, and drawn attention to the film’s very limited role for black women. Bigelow has not succeeded quite so well at putting herself into African-American shoes as she always has at putting herself in men’s.
Her first feature was The Loveless, a biker movie starring Willem Dafoe, in 1982, and she broke through with a moody, atmospheric vampire Western called Near Dark five years later. They’re both intensely masculine films with a wounded heart underneath; also a theme of her biggest hits, with the giddy surf-dude bank robbers of Point Break and fragile bomb squads of The Hurt Locker. Bigelow is principally focused on, and good at, stories about men and their worlds, because she brings a commitment to action but also a level of emotional intensity that’s too often missing: think about Point Break’s goodbye on the beach, or The Hurt Locker’s simmering undercurrent of PTSD, or Detroit’s devastating aftermath to the Algiers incident. Even in the two (of ten) of her films with female leads, Blue Steel and Zero Dark Thirty, she focuses on hard-as-nails women in a largely-male environment. Her male and female leads are about equally likely to shoot you or burst into tears, and either way you’ll believe them.
Yet for all her success and no-bullshit attitude, Bigelow has still had it tougher than her male counterparts. After 2002’s K-19: The Widowmaker underperformed, it was six years before she managed another film, and that was a microbudgeted one shot under the radar (The Hurt Locker turned out pretty well though). Even Bigelow has to deal with these long delays between films that stifle female directors’ careers, although she’s one of the few women that studios claim to shortlist on their big franchise movies. Even Bigelow had to put up with journalists framing the 2009 Oscars as a clash between herself and ex-husband James Cameron, as if her long-ago marriage was more important than her work.
Since Bigelow won her Oscar, no more women have even been nominated for Best Director. As a woman on her level in Hollywood, Bigelow’s almost alone – though Wonder Woman’s Patty Jenkins and Selma’s Ava DuVernay are coming up fast. And maybe she is more closely scrutinised than her male peers because we expect our feminist heroines to be intersectional, to be LGBTQ allies, to hit a higher standard. But Bigelow remains a stand-out, and so her films will be examined accordingly. Detroit is very good, even if it’s short of greatness – but Bigelow herself could still be one of the greats.