With her stunning new film Detroit, Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow returns to a terrifying moment in American history. In Detroit during the summer of 1967, racial tensions exploded across the city. During the riots, which immobilized the city, a group of young Black men and two young White women who sought refuge in the Algiers Motel were brutalized by a group of White police officers. The night of terror that resulted became known as the Algiers Motel Incident.
With the Motor City as her backdrop, Bigelow focuses her lens on this particular incident to tell the stories of the young people involved including those who lost their lives. The film boasts an impressive cast including John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Jason Mitchell, Algee Smith, Will Poulter, Jacob Latimore, Kaitlyn Dever and Chris Chalk among others. Ahead of the premiere of the new trailer, EBONY.com chatted with Chalk about the film, the controversy surrounding the first trailer and what he learned from this horrific moment in our history. Be sure to keep reading for a first look at a stunning exclusive photo from the film.
EBONY: Hi, Chris, how are you?
Chris Chalk: I’m wonderful, how are you?
EBONY: I’m fantastic. Thank you so much for speaking with me.
EBONY: So I’ve seen Detroit, congratulations; it is a fantastic film. The first thing I wanted to know was how did you get involved with this project?
CC: Well, my representatives brought it to my attention, and I read the script, and I’m such a big fan of Kathryn [Bigelow], just because everything she’s ever made is one, very honest, but I feel like she makes actors better. So I always have her on my radar. So that was just an awesome opportunity. Once I read the script, I was like, “Let’s find a way for me to be a part of it.”
EBONY: Fantastic. Did you know much about the Detroit race riots in ’67, or more specifically, about the Algiers Motel Incident prior to signing on for this film?
CC: I didn’t. I didn’t know a single thing about it. I knew the area had lots of racial tension, but I did not know about this very specific event. So once I read about it more, and obviously, first I read the script, then I talked to my wife who went to North Carolina A&T State University, so she has a more brown-skin focused education than I do, and then she hadn’t even heard about it. So I was like, “Well, we’ve got to get into this and learn about this.” And so we kind of jumped in and learned a lot more.
EBONY: So what does that research look like for you? Did you guys go through archives? Do you watch documentaries? How did you get into what happened?
CC: Yeah, it started out with just the history of that … well, obviously the United States at that time … but Detroit at that time. And then, there’s no more microfiche, so then it became the internet. Like the massive search on the internet, watching as many documentaries, even, if not specifically about Detroit, learning about the time helped set the tone for what it was like for brown-skinned people then.
EBONY: Your character, Officer Frankie, comes in at the beginning of the film. Was he based on a real-life character, or was he a fictional character that Ms. Bigelow chose to put in the film to tie everything together?
CC: The event happened at The Blind Pig. We actually never really talked about if Officer Frank was a real human or not because more so I think she was just concerned about making sure that we were honest about the event itself.
CC: I remember she really fought for this to even be in the film, to know that there were so many other things that kicked it off, but this is one of the defining events that people were just fed up because the police officers knew about the speakeasy. They knew, but they just chose tonight, of all nights, you know what I mean? Had the door not been locked to go out the back, maybe it wouldn’t have been as bad. But you take everything, it’s like you’re parading pain in front of people, and people react.
EBONY: Of course. Like the fuse was ignited at that point, moving forward.
CC: Exactly. Yeah, and you know, the fuse may have already been ignited, but taking people through the front was like blowing air onto the fuse.
EBONY: Ms. Bigelow has done such rich work, including Zero Dark Thirty, and now with this film. Do you think because she’s a female director, she’ll have a different perspective than perhaps maybe a male director would have had, when honing in on the specific incident, and all of the people who were involved, and the people who lost their lives as a result of it?
CC: I think, I’m not sure if it’s because she’s a female director, just because she’s incredible, no matter if she’s female or male, or whatever. She just has a huge generosity of storytelling. She wants the absolute truth from the actors, from the text. I was actually talking to another actor who filmed a different part of the movie, and he was saying they would stop for bits of time, just to go back and research and make sure they were being honest. So whatever it is that causes her to be such an honest storyteller, it’s magnificent because you can see it in her movies.
EBONY: I agree. So, speaking of hard to watch, what was the hardest aspect for you being involved in this film, and getting into your specific character?
CC: It’s always tough to be on the other side of activism. It’s tough to be, you know, a guy doing his job, but you’re doing it against your own people. It’s like 12 Years a Slave when I was doing that film, playing the guy that humbled himself and went back to his master with glee, you know you’d like to think you’d be the guy who’s on the other side, you know running away or something. So it’s humbling to have to embrace those guys, too, who were just doing their jobs, but it looks pretty ugly in history’s reflection.
EBONY: Now, there was quite a bit of controversy when the first trailer for Detroit was released. A lot of Black women were concerned that the film was erasing their involvement in the ’67 race riots. I know that Detroit is specifically about this particular incident where Black women weren’t necessarily involved intimately. However, families were affected. What do you want to say to people who might be apprehensive about seeing the film as a result of that first trailer cut?
CC: I believe that when telling a true story based on history, and telling just one specific part, it will feel alienating. Yet it is still a whole people’s story like it is still a story about all of us brown skinned Americans. And just like you said, it affects those families. Lavonne Mitchell, who I’ve worked with before, she plays a grandmother, and she has such a strong presence towards the end of the movie. So it’s not completely alienating brown-skin women at all, and I look forward to the next person who tells the next story that embraces brown skin women’s story in a louder voice. Yet, this one is still so important and so necessary because neither me nor my wife even knew about it. So it’s important not only that we tell our stories, but we listen to our stories.
EBONY: Why was it important for you to be involved with this film? When it came across your desk, and you said, “Ok.” Why was this the project that you went for next?
CC: Well, one because it was beautifully written. Kathryn Bigelow is attached, but also I’m a big fan of making sure my work connects to something that’s important to me, which is telling stories about us. Telling stories about humans, not only humans but brown skinned humans. But, not just brown-skinned humans, underserved people and underserved communities. And that’s kind of a focus of mine. And occasionally, I’ll run away so I can get some sleep, and then come right back to start telling the good stuff again. Because when we can start telling those stories as not just an idea, right? We can talk about an institution, or we can talk about humans, specific humans. I think it’s harder to turn away when you’re talking about a specific story and specific humans. It’s easier to turn away when it’s like I’m talking about an era in history, but this is telling a story about people, and it’s hard to look away. As much as you might want to look away because it hurts your heart, it’s hard to deny that these humans went through something that they should not have gone through.
EBONY: Thank you so much for your time, Chris. I’m really excited for everyone to be able to see Detroit when it comes out in August. I really enjoyed it, it was very difficult to watch, but it is extremely important, as you stated previously, so I appreciate your time.
CC: Thank you so much.
Detroit hits theaters Aug. 4.