*”Detroit,” which opened in limited release on July 28, will open nationwide this Friday, August 4, 2017.
The diverse cast recently gathered to discuss the anxiety-ridden, violent, white knuckle, but true story that is finally being told.
The promos for the movie ask – Do you know what happened in Detroit? Do you know what happened at the hotel? Do you know why it’s been silenced til now?
Some of those questions are answered, while others are still a bit murky. If you believe Mary Jarrett Jackson, Detroit’s first black female Deputy Police Chief, then what the movie reveals barely touches the surface of what really happened at the Algiers Motel in the summer of 1967. The truth is even more sinister.
Detroit is directed by Academy Award-winner Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), written by Mark Boal and stars Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Anthony Mackie, John Boyega, Will Poulter, Jason Mitchell, Chris Chalk, Tyler James Williams, Peyton Alexander Smith, Laz Alonso, Ben O’Toole, Jack Reynor, Joseph David-Jones, Leon Thomas, Miguel Pimentel, Ephraim Sykes, Samira Wiley, Malcolm David Kelley, Nathan Davis Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Hannah Murray, Austin Hebert, John Krasinski and Jeremy Strong.
I recently caught up with cast members Anthony Mackie (AM), Algee Smith (AS), John Boyega (JB), Director Kathryn Bigelow (KB), writer Mark Boal (MB), Laz Alonso (LA), Ben O’Connell (BP) and Will Poulter (WP) at the Foundation Hotel in Detroit – to talk about the controversial film.
Q: Anthony, although you weren’t around during the Detroit uprising, you have been around for other uprisings, including Los Angeles and Ferguson. What are your thoughts on uprisings and whether they are effective? If not, what is a better way to lift your voice and be heard?
AM: I think it was Malcolm X who said to ‘give voice to the voiceless’. When you look at the movie, it’s about giving voice to the voiceless. Once I knew about this story, I realized my character was the first one to speak out about it and to tell what really happened in the motel. Sometimes we have to lift our voice and our fists and not our thumbs.
Q: Some people have said they don’t know why you started the movie where you did. Some felt the movie was toned down a bit and that it doesn’t capture what the riots were really like.
AS: With all due respect, I can comment. What we tried to do in two hours, it would take 10-12 episodes. The important part was to highlight the injustice. We wanted to get as close as we could. It was a good point highlighting how these people were oppressed. Not every single thing is right, but I feel like every time I come here, it’s home. I’m from Saginaw.
Q: Would anyone else like to add anything?
JB: The beginning is the systematic racism and how that creates tension. When the system stops you from being the best you can be, it sparks a reaction. Systematic racism is real.
Q: Kathryn, talk about your musical approach and your choices.
KB: The song choices were a product of the culture at the time and the period. It was about digging deeper than more well known pieces. I wanted to keep it intriguing. Not everyone is well known. It added to the tapestry. You can’t tell the story without music. It’s the DNA of the city at that time.
Q: Kathryn, when did you first learn about this story?
KB: Probably in early 2015. A screenwriter came to me with this story. I’m listening to it. A week earlier there was an acquittal of the officer in the Michael Brown shooting. I heard that story and thought it was 50 years ago, but it’s today. This has to stop. I don’t know how – but to create a platform to encourage meaningful dialogue. I thought it was a tragedy that needed to see the light of day. Outside of Detroit noone knew about this.
Q: Mr. Boal, there is some concern from local Detroiters that a movie like this would create tension with a changing Detroit. Is that something you heard or were concerned about?
MB: As far as what I’ve heard, I did a radio show this morning and some people called in and, the thing that struck me was everybody that was alive then has a memory from 1967 and one of the caller’s brother had been friends with some of the people killed at the Algiers. His brother was supposed to go that night, but their mom stood at door and said, “You can’t go out.” Somebody else said the riot didn’t start the way I showed it, it started the day before. The thing I’ve heard from the people that lived through ‘67 was a whole range of human experiences. The movie can only do what it can do. I also heard from people who didn’t know this story. If it’s true that some people in Detroit didn’t know this story, then it’s definitely true in the rest of the country – that this story had been forgotten. When you talk about ‘67 usually the cultural representations are the summer of love and the hippie movement, exploration and rebellion. Meanwhile you have an urban strife going on. That‘s not part of our cultural awareness. To me this is an important story. This is an important piece of history.
Q: While shooting this film you had to actually see dead bodies and blood. Of course it’s fake, but you had to have some kind of reaction.
LA: I had an opportunity to participate in the table read leading up to the filming. By the time I got to the set I was very well read and had done my research. I don’t think one can actually intellectualize emotion. Kathryn [Bigelow] has a gift for bringing the viewing audience into the film and having you participate as if you are in it as well. When I came out of watching the film I had to be quiet and take it all in. It was very difficult to think about and be by myself because it hits close to home.
Q: Mr. Boal, the same question.
MB: For the people who experienced this first hand, it was still fresh and emotional, even though it was 50 years ago. It’s a unique experience to see your life on screen. It’s disorienting. It’s been painful, but there is now acknowledgement that this happened. I don’t want to put words in their mouths. To be honest, I haven’t had these conversations. I’m not an expert on Detroit today. I’m really not. I can say that what I like best about the city is the people in it.
Q: Will (Poulter), your character is wretched. How difficult was it for you to play such a character?
WP: When taking on this role it was important to conceptualize the texture of the material and the story. I had to look at what it was like to be a white cop at that time. Racially-motivated police work was common. Looking at my character – they were all racists. A policeman or not, he was a racist. It’s unfortunate to have a police officer be a racist. There was no screening for that. Still, they were a group of individuals that came into that power. Preparing to play a racist – the biggest challenge is that you can’t justify your behavior. There was nothing in our characters that we could really latch on to other then we were white males. I looked at the ignorant thought structures. It’s a bunch of bullshit. You have to convince yourself it’s worth acting. I don’t have the answer as to how you ensure these things don’t happen again and that police like that go un-convicted. This whole thing is complex and multi-faceted. The first step is to educate ourselves where we lack knowledge and shedding light on social injustice. The police force in Detroit at that time was 95 percent white. Now Detroit has the most diverse police force in America. We can look back on this process and be proud of the product we produced. I, as white person, I think that when we are invited to participate in race dialogue – we should.
Q: Same question to you Ben.
BO: A big thing was having an open channel of communication on set. Creating a safety net. Kathryn and Mark put together this great ensemble. Everybody felt safe emotionally, psychologically and physically as well. We worked in an environment where there was no judgement. We had to go to places we had to go to. We had to play the characters in an unapologetic way. This was bigger than us. What we tried to do with film is bigger than us. I felt very supported and very safe throughout the whole thing. It was an ugly place to be in, but I felt safe. I’m glad it’s done.
WP: When we were shooting this – there is perhaps an argument for all us to keep apart from one another, to keep our distance to capture something on screen. But what we came up with collectively was to preface everything we did on set with strong relationships and identifying with each other through respect and trust. It was kind of a double-edged sword though because it makes inflicting violence and aggression and acting with hatred with someone you love and respect – harder at times. But, I’m really glad that we went through this process. I’m very proud of what we produced and to be able to say we did it as a team. At the end of it we have a stronger bond.
Q: Algee, how do you differ from your character?
AS: I’m not different from my character. I’m a young black man. I like to sing. What happened could happen to me. I can walk outside and it can happen. Larry [Cleveland Reed] is me. There is no separation.
Q: Without giving too much away, the film leaves a lot of questions unanswered. For instance, why didn’t someone just say who had the gun – especially since the one who did was already dead? It made no sense.
AS: It’s very interesting. I can’t say why. But if you look at the movie it highlights that the gun was never found. That’s a really good question. I can’t answer that in its totality. You’ve got me stumped. Me personally, if I was there, I can’t even say what I would do. Maybe it was defiance. I can’t answer that because I wasn’t in that actual room. But, that’s a good question.
Q: John, your thoughts on why Melvin Dismukes never pulled his gun to help the teens.
JB: – I asked Melvin about many things. To me the whole pulling his weapon wasn’t a question that came to mind because of the situation. You are surrounded by these cops who are obviously taking advantage of this situation and going crazy and killing men in front of you. Personally for me, I’m not going to leave the grocery store. Personally for me, I’m going to try to pull out a gun. I don’t understand why he left the grocery store. Sometimes when we watch a movie we try to play hero from comfort. We like to look at other people’s position from a position of comfort. Detroit the movie is complex. There are a lot of choice and decisions that come to us as human beings. There are things you do to survive. Before you’re black there are things you do to survive. I was blessed to understand the man. We shot in that motel for a long time. It was claustrophobic. There was blood on the walls and bodies on the floor. It’s the worst trip ever. Being there, seeing the corpses, you’re not at an advantage to pull out a weapon. He felt his presence there as a black figure of authority was enough for the officers. He said, “if you notice, he references me before he does anything.” His presence stood as a sense of stability. His presence was a sense of stability for the boys. The gun pulling out – he would have just gotten shot in the head.
Q: I know you’ve heard several times about you being a white woman telling the story of the Detroit uprisings.
KB: Yes, I’ve heard that I’m a white woman telling a black story. I had to have a very lengthy conversation with myself. I really obviously analyzed it long and hard. Am I the right person, absolutely not. On the other hand this story needed to be told. It overrode everything else. I have this opportunity. It needs to see the light of day. I took advantage of this opportunity. It’s a concern and a challenge.
Q: Kathryn, what kind of research did you do for this film?
KB: There was a fair amount of research and court records and eyewitness accounts. Some of the information was in the Freedom of Information Act. The trial was three trials over a year and a half. The last trial took place in Macon, Michigan. It was moved out of the city into an exclusively white area. That outcome was a product of moving it to that city. The judge actually took manslaughter off the table. It was either first-degree murder or an acquittal. I don’t know if that can happen today. You took off an option that may have made the outcome different. We did our best.