by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film, Detroit, is remarkable on a number of levels. The young men at the center of the story turn in game-changing performances. The musical score lays emotional groundwork for the audience’s journey, and Bigelow’s directing is at the top of her game. The complex yet powerful lens she has focused on overseas conflicts in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty has now been brought back to her own country, where she examines a tragic, yet unknown, event from American history.
Aside from the historical interest, powerful performances, and masterful filmmaking, Bigelow also manages to push the boundaries of traditional storytelling structure, while managing to keep an emotional connection throughout the film with her audience.
As with any deeper examination of a film, spoilers from the plot follow.
Detroit begins with an animated prologue that provides a sense of history and backstory for the events that we will later see. We are given key insights into the psychology of black Americans in Detroit at the time. Often, only simple text is given to set the scene in historical dramas, while more creative approaches are often taken in other genres – see the opening crawl in the Star Wars films, for example. Engaging the audience with animation at the film’s start does not feel out of context or confusing, which is a risk the filmmaker took. It does, however, surprise us and cue us into the fact that we are likely about to witness this story in ways outside of the bounds we normally expect. This sets a powerful example for other storytellers — risk taking, when it comes to how we approach telling our stories, can be worth it, especially when the right execution can be accomplished.
Even after the opening sequence of the film, Bigelow resists the urge to immediately begin revealing specifics about the protagonists, instead choosing to further set the scene and create a specific mood in Detroit at the time, with environmental storytelling that culminates in a police raid on a private gathering in an African American neighborhood. Slowly and organically, key characters — both protagonists and antagonists — are revealed, complete with their backstories, motivations, and internal and external goals. Everything up through this point in the film makes up a creative yet complete first act.
In the second act, we are brought into the event at the heart of the film – the incident at the Algiers Motel, where three young black men are murdered without proper cause. Bigelow uses the techniques that made her so effective in the military-related films she has been celebrated for to create a tension that builds throughout the entire middle section of the story. All the protagonists and antagonists are brought into the same space. All are pushed to their limits. The result is tragic and presented with such a degree of realism that it is often hard not to look away.
The third act deals with the aftermath of the event, including the revoking of the confession of the guilty officers that committed the murders. Watching how the results of the tragedy affect each character offers layer after layer of subtle nuance, reminding us that life is rarely simple and often unfair.
Bigelow’s dénouement shows the life choice made by the character most central in the story, as a result of the events of the fateful night. It is both heart-wrenching and hopeful. We are left with a character who has re-prioritized his life. His desires have moved from the external world to the internal. He evolves from being a man who wants a piece of the pie to a man who simply wants peace. Bigelow and her scriptwriter, Mark Boal, structured the film as a pyramid, beginning with a broad base of societal and historical context and eventually making their way to a final point, hammered home by a single life – a character that has been transformed by moments of evil, who chooses to keep going, and resolves to a life of introspection but deep meaning.
Detroit opens in theaters nationwide this weekend.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.