Watch “Detroit” and you’ll see a movie that feels more like a documentary than a story. As a result, “Detroit” explains what might have happened during the 1967 Detroit riots, but fails to engage us in the characters. Truth simply isn’t as exciting as fiction. In “Detroit,” there’s no traditional emotional change in the hero who gradually learns to become a better person. Instead, we get to see lots of different people pursuing goals although we never get to know who these people are from their past and what they want in the present.
So instead of watching a hero struggling to overcome obstacles to achieve a worthwhile goal, we just get to see a hero reacting to events around him. The hero becomes passive and thus boring. Despite “Detroit” telling a compelling, real-life story, the movie doesn’t really grab you emotionally from a single person’s point of view.
Now compare this to a South Korean movie called “A Taxi Driver.” In this movie, the hero is a taxi cab driver who doesn’t care about anything other than making money. When he spots people protesting against the oppressive dictatorship running South Korea back in 1980, he simply dismisses them as getting in his way and wasting everyone’s time.
This taxi cab driver picks up a German journalist who wants to visit a city that the government has blocked off to prevent news of government troops shooting and beating citizens. At first this cab driver just wants to collect a rich fare from the German journalist. Then when he (and the audience) witnesses the atrocities of the South Korean soldiers on South Korean people, he starts changing his mind about the value of money. Eventually we learn that his wife died and he got drunk all the time until he realized his young daughter missed her mother and needed a parent. Based on this emotion, the hero starts to care about the German journalist less as a rich cab fare than as someone who he needs to help so the German journalist can release film footage of the South Korean brutal massacre of its own people.
By the end of “A Taxi Driver,” the hero (and the audience) has seen the atrocities and can no longer stay silent. By the end, the hero changes and cares more about helping the German journalist than about money. That ending leaves us emotionally satisfied.
Both “Detroit” and “A Taxi Driver” are based on real events, but where “Detroit” seems content to introduce the hero without letting us know his hopes, dreams, and past, “A Taxi Driver” clearly shows us the hero’s hopes, dreams, and painful past. Because the hero in “A Taxi Driver” changes, the movie creates a wonderful emotional roller coaster of excitement. Because the hero in “Detroit” remains a mystery and doesn’t change during the course of the story, “Detroit” remains an aloof movie that resembles a documentary than a story. Just parading out facts doesn’t make a compelling story, and that’s where “Detroit” fails as a movie.
No matter how much action your story includes, it must make us care emotionally about the hero by revealing the hero’s dream and showing us how he or she changes over time to become a better person. Every great movie makes us care about the hero. Every bad and mediocre movie often does not. Make us care. That’s far more important than adding more special effects, sex, and violence.