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'Detroit' crashes at box office amid criticism

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

‘Detroit” is in trouble at the box office.

The film landed its opening weekend in the No. 8 position, wedged between the second weekend of “Atomic Blonde” and the fourth of “War for the Planet of the Apes.” Its $7.1 million opening was the lowest this year of any film opening in more than 3,000 theaters, lower than even May’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul.”

“Detroit” the film, which opened wide in August’s first weekend, landed in that weekend’s No. 8 position.

This weekend, the film dropped five spots to the No. 13 position, with a 58 percent dip from the previous week. To date the movie, which carries a budget estimated between $35-$40 million, has earned just $13.4 million.

Few expected Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the 1967 Detroit riots to burn up the box office; it’s not exactly blockbuster material. But its under-performance hurts it and could damage its awards season hopes, where it was once thought to be a surefire best picture contender.

Annapurna Pictures, the film’s distributor, opened “Detroit” on a handful of screens a week early, hoping to build buzz for its wide release. But in a summertime dominated by superheroes — did you hear “Wonder Woman” just crossed the $400 million mark? — a searingly intense, claustrophobic racial thriller based on true events is proving to be a tough sell. While the opening was tied to the 50th anniversary of the Detroit riots, a slow rollout during awards season was likely a better, more strategic play.

The box office isn’t the only place where “Detroit” is hurting. Some have challenged the film’s merits and questioned whether the story of the Algiers Motel incident — in which three black men were killed by a group of white cops — is director Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s story to tell. (Bigelow and Boal are both white.)

“Watching ‘Detroit’ I realized that I’m not interested in white perceptions of black pain,” Angelica Jade Bastien wrote in her two-star review of the film on “‘Detroit’ was directed, written, produced, shot, and edited by white creatives who do not understand the weight of the images they hone in on with an unflinching gaze.”

In Complex, Justin Davis writes “Detroit” undoes the progress made by such 2016 films as “Hidden Figures” and last year’s best picture winner “Moonlight,” in which black characters transcended traditional Hollywood characterizations. “In Boal’s goal to give an unflinchingly ‘real’ interpretation of the (Algiers) incident, he’s removed all semblance of a real understanding of the Black experience,” Davis writes. “He knows that we are talented, that we are oppressed, and that we are targets — but he doesn’t know what it’s like to BE us.”

It’s 2017, so there were bound to be accusations of appropriation tied to the film. Bigelow has said she wants the film to help start a much-needed dialogue on race, but the conversation the film seems to be spurring is whether it’s the proper film to start a dialogue on race or whether it’s a cultural drive-by.

The movie “Detroit” will close the Traverse City Film Festival at 6 p.m. Sunday at the State Theatre, 233 E. Front, Traverse City.

Bigelow herself admitted that she’s not the best person to tell the story during a discussion of the film last month at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Museum director Juanita Moore says that is true of many Hollywood films, but the fact that it was made allows for these types of discussions to take place, and that is ultimately positive.

“Those conversations are beginning to be had by people who would have never had the conversations without the film,” said Moore, who has seen “Detroit” twice. “It gives us an opportunity to learn and grow, and I think that’s what this movie does. So whether Kathryn Bigelow made the movie or Juanita Moore made the movie, which I didn’t, I think what’s important is that the movie was made.”

The film still has critical reaction on its side, and an 84 percent approval rating on critical aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes. (That figure has slid from 94 percent prior to its wide opening.) Critics agree that the film is tough as nails, although some have likened it to a horror movie (in his 1.5 star pan, the Globe and Mail’s John Semley likens it to “racial torture porn”).

The film has a long road ahead of it toward awards season contention, but could slip into the best picture race, depending on how fall’s slate of Oscar hopefuls plays out. Highly anticipated should-be contenders that have yet to be seen include Steven Spielberg’s Pentagon project “The Papers,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Phantom Thread,” the Thomas Edison story “The Current War” and Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing.”

It’s worth noting that it’s been nearly a decade since a film released in summertime has gone on to win an Oscar for Best Picture. In 2010, a movie made minimal waves at the box office and had issues connecting with audiences because of its difficult subject matter, but went on to outlast the competition and win the big prize. That movie? “The Hurt Locker,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

Twitter: @grahamorama