In one of the most non-shocking developments of the year, the box office showed critical favorite Detroit completely tanking this weekend. The film, made with a budget of $34 million, cleared just $7.25 million domestically on its opening weekend, clocking in eighth, behind blockbusters like The Emoji Movie, now in its second week, and Girls Trip, now in its third. Dunkirk, meanwhile, barely missed winning the box office again, clearing $17.6 million in its third week for a total domestic gross of $133.6 million.
Some of that has to do, no doubt, with the heavy subject matter of the material in Detroit, but some of it also has to do with the fact that audiences have been less than enthusiastic. While critics give the film a Rotten Tomatoes score of 87%, audiences gave it just 76%. Dunkirk, by contrast, earned 82% from audiences, and Girls Trip earned 87%.
This isn’t about Kathryn Bigelow, the director of Detroit – Zero Dark Thirty earned $95.7 million at the domestic box office and received an 80% approval rating from audiences. It is about the fact that Americans are sick of being lectured about how their racial attitudes today mirror those of the past. The film centers on the Detroit riots of 1967, which occurred in one of the least-discriminatory, most wealthy black areas in the nation at the time; as Thomas Sowell writes, “black median family income was 95 percent of white median income. The unemployment rate among blacks was 3.4 percent and black home ownership was higher in Detroit than in any other major city.” The riots actually destroyed Detroit’s future by encouraging white flight, destroying the tax base, and creating a left-shift in governance that emptied the city completely.
The film instead reportedly draws the conclusion that America remains a deeply racist place with problems that continue until today; it focuses not on the broader impact of the riots but specifically on racist brutality that occurred at the Algiers Motel. That’s perfectly worth covering, of course, but determining that such behavior in 1967 represents something broader in American society today isn’t accurate.
This was a message film. Its producers acknowledged as much: Erik Lomis, Annapurna’s head of distribution, stated, “when you look at the movie, we’re proud of the film, and we stand behind the message of the film.” Producer Mark Boal stated, “We’re in a difficult spot in the world right now, and I’m hopeful that audiences will respond to the challenge that the movie poses and appreciate not being talked down to.”
Except that the film does talk down to audiences, apparently. And Americans aren’t interested in hearing how racist they are – not from Hollywood, which will declare Americans racist no matter what.