Summer is usually when studios put out movies that don’t challenge audiences all that intensely. People want to be entertained, not lectured to. Dunkirk challenged that a couple weeks ago and now Detroit seeks to do likewise, only more so.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, the movie stars John Boyega and others in a story based on the true events that took place in the titular city 50 years ago. Specifically, it’s focused on the raid by police of the Algiers Motel in Detroit and the subsequent death of three black men and the severe beatings of other men and women. That raid took place during protests and riots by black citizens in the city that emerged following an earlier confrontation and was followed by continued unrest that culminated in the National Guard and other military elements being sent in. What precisely happened in the Algiers was never made entirely clear and, just as is too common today, subsequent trials exonerated the officers involved.
The first poster employs a tactic that’s being used more and more, that of shifting the perspective to show an image that is actually a landscape that’s turned on its side to be in portrait format. Some of the copy is oriented for portrait but the main photo of cops holding back a group of protestors and the title are both landscape. The photo is a bit beaten up like it’s been handled and stored for decades and is worn. It’s pretty effective at establishing the setting and story without giving away too much. “It’s time we knew” is the copy that tells us we’re getting some story we likely aren’t aware of.
A second poster uses the same portrait orientation for the title while placing four close-up shots of members of the main cast in quad format around the poster. Again, the appeal is made that this comes from the director of Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker and is based on a shocking and “terrifying” true story of a time in America’s recent history.
The first trailer starts off with actual news footage from the 1967 violence that gripped the city. So we hear about the snipers that have everyone on edge and other actions. We meet Melvin, a security guard who’s just trying to do his job and keep things peaceful before cutting to a bus load of citizens who decide to hole up at a local motel until things calm down. Things begin to escalate when someone pulls a prank involving a starter pistol that no one outside knows is fake. So the police and national guard that are in the city raid the hotel and start looking for the gun. That brings everyone together as the burnt out military just wants answers, Melvin wants everyone to survive and the violence everywhere escalates.
It’s an incredibly effective and terrifying trailer that shows the historical context for the story and the very personal perspective we will be asked to follow. Boyega looks great as the cop who just wants to keep the peace and do his job. The violence keeps ramping up further and further and this looks like a gripping story.
As the second trailer opens we see Melvin is being questioned by the police about the events of the dramatic night. He recounts what he knows from his involvement as a security guard but it turns out the police have it in mind to pin at least some of the deaths at the hotel on him. It’s then the trailer pans out to set the historical context of what happened in the city as a whole and in the hotel where everything went down.
I kind of dig how this one takes a more personal approach to the story. It’s not just about the city, it’s about *this* guy and what happened to him and what he saw. That makes sense both from the point of view of connecting the audience very personally with the story and because hey, why not put Boyega front and center for at least part of the campaign, right?
Online and Social
When you load the official website it’s clear the site is built on Tumblr from the way content is laid out. The trailer starts playing in one of the tiles at the top of the page, with another letting you play a video that intercuts footage from the movie with an interview with a number of people who lived through the events depicted and the filmmakers.
Keep scrolling down the page and you’ll encounter a number of other photos from both the film and the news of the time. You can sort which ones you’d like to see by choosing either “Film” or “1967. The “Trailer” will play the final trailer for you.
Most importantly, more of the interviews can be found in “True Stories,” which gives you the same one seen at the top of the page as well as a second with more memories and insights.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
TV advertising kicked off with a spot that condensed the story down to show the racial climate that will be portrayed in the movie, with shots of kids acting tough and cops getting in everyone’s faces as tensions begin to boil over.
The second trailer was used pretty extensively in social ads on Twitter and Facebook. Key art was used for outdoor billboards as well as banner and other online ads.
Media and Publicity
One aspect of the movie got particular attention, namely that it was a movie about black people that was written by a white guy. Screenwriter Mark Boal addressed that disconnect head-on, discussing how he discovered the story, the responsibility he felt to tell it, working with Bigelow again and lots more.
Boyega also was a focus of the press, where he talked about taking on this role, what it’s been like to bounce between Star Wars and other projects and other topics like how familiar he was or wasn’t with this particular part of America’s history. Boyega also did the late night talk show rounds to promote the movie there.
As a well-known director it was good to see Bigelow get the spotlight as well. She and co-star Anthony Mackie did their own press appearances, was interviewed about how this movie fits into her body of work that focuses on real-life action and violence and otherwise talked about doing what she could to highlight a part of history.
This is a challenging movie to sell. It’s the kind of low-profile prestige movie that doesn’t usually get big release platforms these days. Indeed, I kept having to remind myself it wasn’t a Netflix original film, something they picked up at a festival.
The campaign hasn’t shied away from some difficult topics, though, including the attitudes and behaviors of the police and military who were in or sent to Detroit to deal with the situation. Boyega’s security guard character is clearly our entry point into the story, the one we’re following and who is shown to be beholden to two viewpoints, both that of law enforcement and his identity as a black man. It’s through his eyes that we see what’s happening and how things spiral out of control.
Not only is what’s being sold an important historical lesson – especially for people like me who knew of but weren’t all that familiar with what happened there – but it’s so incredibly timely to the world we live in now. It seems like once a month a new instance emerges of police killing unarmed black men, women and children and eventually being set free. Riots and protests have popped up around the country in the last three years in response to this and while none have reached the fever pitch of Detroit 50 years ago, they’re all reminders that we have a long way to go. The marketing of Detroit never makes that connection explicitly, but it’s there in the background for anyone who’s been watching the news.