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Why is the conversation about Kathryn Bigelow's 'Detroit' barely above a whisper?

Why is the conversation about Kathryn Bigelow's 'Detroit' barely above a whisper?
A scene from the period race drama "Detroit," based on true events. (Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures)

What if Hollywood threw a provocation and nobody came?

There will almost certainly be larger financial failures than "Detroit" this moviegoing year. And there will doubtless be bigger celebrity crash-outs.

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But there are unlikely to be many greater cultural surprises than the reaction — or non-reaction — to "Detroit."

Kathryn Bigelow's fact-based movie about a shattering, race-charged event of police brutality in the Motor City circa 1967 that led to the deaths of three young black men was supposed to be the cinematic event of the summer — the antidote (along with "Dunkirk") to superhero fatigue, a dose of studio seriousness amid the sizzle. With questions of racism roiling the White House, it also couldn't have come along at a better (or worse) time.

Yet t‎hree weekends into its release — the last two in more than 3,000 theaters — those hopes are looking like pure fantasy.‎ After a limited opening in late July, "Detroit" widened weakly two weekends ago, taking in barely $7 million. Then the movie — budgeted at about $35 million — petered out even further, falling some 60% last weekend. As of Monday, it had barely grossed $13 million. By contrast, "Annabelle: Creation," a modestly budgeted actual horror movie, took in more money on Friday alone.‎

Attracting mainstream audiences to a movie about the fraught relationship between African Americans and the police is a tall order anytime. That goes double in July and August, when onscreen law-and-order characters are almost always the heroes. That the victims in this instance, needless to say, fail to turn the tables in crowd-pleasing revolt makes it an even tougher summer sell. (The film was released now, timed to the 50th anniversary of the Detroit civil unrest, by first-time distributor Annapurna Pictures. Let the Hollywood second-guessing and punditizing begin.)

But commercial reaction is one thing. Tastemaker response is another. A movie like "Detroit" may not be built for mass consumption. But it is tailor-made for cultural argument. It's the kind of film that should, and very often does, launch a thousand think pieces.

The movie's central conceit is that we fail to learn the lessons of history — that by watching a story with period costumes and ancient streetscapes we can see the modern world through a softer lens. If a "Detroit" does its job right — and the subjective opinion at least in this space is that it does — past and present almost begin to blend into a singular image. We're not just witnessing the three men who died at the city's Algiers Motel when we watch "Detroit," but the stand-ins for Philando Castile, Eric Garner and the untold number of other contemporary victims of alleged police misconduct.

Not that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal's work should be accepted as inarguable political truth. The genius of a movie like "Detroit" is that, for all its rhetorical force, it never paints itself into one interpretation.

Even as it unequivocally condemns police behavior as fundamentally the actions of militant occupiers — even as it shows the historical causes of a black urban uprising to negate the "riot" narrative told primarily by white historians — it doesn't content itself with one-sidedness. "Detroit," after all, also subtly shows the pressures that the cops face; it puts on display the culture of fear that causes the police to get deeper and deeper until the unthinkable happens. It manages to be a polemic and an exploration at the same time. And the arguments about it might aptly be expected to come from each side — from those who feel subtlety is lost with the former, and a necessary stridency with the latter.

"Detroit," in short, is a movie that should be extolled, railed against, defended, picked apart — agreed upon as a universally important film, even as it will never find any universality of opinion.

Look, for example, at how Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper" caused a spirited back-and-forth and generated no easy consensus about its patriotism quotient. Or, for that matter, recall Bigelow's previous film, "Zero Dark Thirty," which dominated not just entertainment sections but op-ed pages for weeks with debates about torture and national intelligence after its release in late 2012. These are movies with charged takes on the unique condition of American violence, and they engender spirited reactions in kind.

Yet somehow the conversation about "Detroit" has barely risen above a whisper. The few substantive essays about it were mainly questioning the movie's liberal bona fides. Some more fierce voices in the Black Lives Matter movement that might have embraced the film's substance turned inward, questioning the motives, methods and even race of the filmmakers, who are predominantly white. Some of these left-oriented pundits engaged in the kind of in-group cannibalization that would be surprising if it was in any way new.

The All Lives Matter contingent, meanwhile, ignored the movie completely, reasoning, even unconsciously, that the best thing they could do with "Detroit" is not get too upset by it.

No matter where people were on the spectrum, it seemed, there was reason to dismiss "Detroit" — or forget about it entirely.

The generous explanation in all this is that, with so much actual bigotry and violence in the country, people are collectively too distracted to pay attention to a movie like "Detroit." Who needs abstract representations of villainy when the real thing unfolds by the hour on CNN? As "Detroit" was dying commercially this past weekend, the violence in Charlottesville, Va., was reaching its peak. Many were incensed about the state of the world. And they were glued to their TV or social media feeds instead of heading to the multiplex.

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The Bigelow film had encountered a problem of the utmost rarity among Hollywood releases — an audience too enlightened.

The less generous explanation of course is that "Detroit" wasn't seen as too relevant: It wasn't seen at all. A combination of marketing missteps and audience frivolousness simply caused it to disappear.

Is there also a possibility that parts of the core audience, whether black or white, are tired of African American victim stories? This idea popped up on social media and in some of those all-too-few think pieces: that the world circa 2017 called for more "Hidden Figures" and less "12 Years a Slave." It's an impossible proposition to test, certainly with this sadly low sample number.

Perhaps "Detroit's" future is not yet written. Movies of topicality can reassert themselves when said topic rears up again or the issues interfering with its relevance fade. Whether that can happen during this award season (Hollywood's most immediate concern) or at some later point in film history, it remains a possibility.

But more likely the film will ghost away. One can't help feeling a double standard here; pundits (this one included) can be tireless in their demand that Hollywood make more substantive movies. And the rare time someone in the film community does (OK, a someone in the form of a maverick like Annapurna's Megan Ellison, but still) the result is ignored.

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"Detroit" is not the first movie with serious race-related ambitions to fail to ignite the hoped-for conversation. This seems particularly true with movies about such real-life police incidents, like the underperforming "Fruitvale Station" a few years ago. That was another film that came along to fill an aching need, and then was almost as quickly turned away. When it comes to movies that teach the lessons of the past, we seem not to be very good at learning the lessons of the past.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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