Wednesday, September 28, 2022

The Collaboration & Controversy Between Kathryn Bigelow & Mark Boal

By Josh Williams

​Collaboration is possibly the most important aspect within the world of filmmaking. Two brilliant minds coming together to create something magical. Whether it be a frequent cinematographer/director combo like Roger Deakins and the Coen Brothers, or a frequent editor/director combo like Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese, collaboration within a film is absolutely vital. One of the most important combinations there are is the screenwriter and director. A person to formulate and organize ideas and another to bring these to life. From Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese to the Johnathan and Christopher Nolan, everyone has their favorites. Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal are another filmmaking pair who have given us two highly regarded and often debated films in the past and now their third is hitting cinemas nationwide this weekend with controversy surrounding it yet again. Is that reason enough to keep you from seeing “Detroit” this weekend? Is “Detroit” an objectively bad film? To make sense of it, one must understand the work of Bigelow and Boal.


Bigelow and Boal have teamed up on three consecutive films now, each receiving both critical praise and critical bashings along with some awards attention. In 2009 Bigelow won the Oscar for Best Director, becoming the first female to ever do so while Boal won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Their film “The Hurt Locker” also went on to win Best Picture. While Bigelow was snubbed for another shot at winning Best Director, their next film “Zero Dark Thirty” managed to get a Best Picture nomination and a screenwriting nod for Boal. And now with Bigelow’s “Detroit” releasing this weekend, many are wondering if the film is on a similar awards track or if it will be stopped in its tracks before it can even get to that point.

The first thing that makes the two filmmakers mesh so well together is that they seem to tackle a niche genre of film. They undertake these intense, dramatic, topical films with political undertones. Always discussing something that is totally relevant in today’s society whether it be a war being front abroad by soldiers or the CIA, now Bigelow and Boal are looking at a different kind of war and they are going back in the past to do so. They want to show us how much we have to go still in order to achieve racial justice and equality, especially as far as the justice system is concerned. Boal’s background as a journalist combined with Bigelow’s talent for capturing masculinity has been the perfect winning combination on how to best portray different aspects of our country and reflect on who we are, where we are going and where we have been. The two clearly understand how one another operates, making for some generally exciting cinema, filled with extraordinary attention to detail and riveting moments of drama and tension.

However, with their new release hitting theaters this weekend, a lot of questions are being raised. Will “Detroit” shine at the Oscars like “The Hurt Locker” did or will it fall victim to the backlash like “Zero Dark Thirty?” Or worse yet, will it get ignored altogether? Backlash is completely unavoidable, especially with films that surround a particular political climate. With “Detroit” receiving familiar resentment that “Zero Dark Thirty” did, it’s difficult to say whether or not it will be a giant awards season player.

Detroit” is an incredibly bleak and intense film that will no doubt have the Bigelow stamp written all over it, but what about the subject material? The subject material is incredibly crucial to this country’s history and some have called into question whether Boal and Bigelow, two white filmmakers, should even bother telling such a personal and important story for the African American community. Some reviews have been stating the Bigelow does not understand how much emotional weight some of her images are carrying and overall that is what hinders her latest project. So if this is the case and the film is received more as a disrespectful representation versus a respectful comment on the horrific events that happened 50 years ago, things could go south for Bigelow and Boal. 

Regardless of the backlash that “Detroit” is receiving along with the backlash “Zero Dark Thirty” received, there is no doubt that Bigelow and Boal are two titans in cinema right now, as they bring a magnifying glass to events that are either currently happening or have happened within our country and how they reflect on where we stand and where we should be heading. The two like to focus on internal struggles and then bring those struggles out through physical altercations or physically aggressive imagery. Juxtaposing intimate dialogue scenes with intense and quickly paced action sequences, the two have found a formula that works well with the critics while audiences puzzle over what to make of their work.

In a reality where we cannot avoid politics, Bigelow and Boal are bringing a light to it versus trying to avoid the difficult times we are currently in. Especially in “Detroit,” the two highlight it, expose it and yes, make it graphic. Their films are not necessarily for the faint of heart mostly due to how much weight they carry. Now whether or not you believe that the films are disrespectful or if Bigelow and Boal have no business telling the stories they are choosing to tell, that is a whole other story. The two have had success in the past and it’s clear that despite how their work is received, they are telling stories they believe in and deserve this level of conversation. We hope you will see “Detroit” for yourself instead of disregarding it all together and make up your own mind afterward. It may not be an enjoyable film but were “The Hurt Locker” or “Zero Dark Thirty” wholesome feel-good films in their own right? “Detroit” is meant to provoke a response. See it and tell us, tell your friends and family, tell the world your response.

Detroit” releases August 4th. It is directed by Kathryn Bigelow, written by Mark Boal and stars John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell and Will Poulter. You can read Matt’s review of the film here.

You can follow Josh and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @josh_williams09

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