Detroit is not an easy film to watch. Kathryn Bigelow’s ’60 set drama recounts one of the most horrific incidents in United States history. In the summer of 1967, civil disturbances surrounding racial injustice rocked the nation. On Sunday, Jul 23, the Motor City went up in flames. With a plot that plays like a horror movie, Bigelow hones in on the Algiers Motel Incident where three Black males, Carl Cooper 17; Aubrey Pollard, 19 and Fred Temple, 18 were slaughtered at the hands of the Detroit Police Department, the Michigan State Police and the Michigan Army National Guard.
The explosion came at a time when the population in the midwestern city was approaching 40% African American with a 95% white police force. Despite the documented atrocities that occurred during the Detroit Riots, the history of the Algiers Motel Incident isn’t widely known. “You know about the Rodney King riots, and you know when Martin Luther King got shot, but, to find out that in the 60’s there were over 300 of these rebellions that took place is [unnerving],” Laz Alonzo who plays U.S. Congressman John Conyers Jr. said.
Black Detroit was enraged, and psychologically scarred, and the film captures it all. “It humbled me,” Jason Mitchell who plays Carl explained. “At the same time it really made me feel like, ‘Am I safe? Are the people around me safe?’ It made me feel very uncomfortable. It was a lot.”
British actor Will Poulter who portrays vicious and volatile Detroit Police Officer Krauss did not take on the role lightly. “I think, as a British actor the concept of race relations and racism wasn’t a foreign concept to me,” he said. “In terms of understanding the psychology of a racist, particularly a racially motivated police officer in our time, I had to look [at] the general lies and methodology that racists adopt. The lies and methodology that are responsible for forming their impressions on other ethnic groups and as uncomfortable as it was to adopt that for the time that we were shooting the movie, I had to because I wanted to represent this character and expose this individual as truthfully as possible.”
In the film, security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) finds himself caught in the crossfire of this horrendous event. For Boyega, the truth was sometimes hard to contend with. “When danger, happens it’s not about Black, white or anything, you’re human, and your instincts come in,” he expressed. “He’s a character that struggles with all of that, and he’s trying to exist within a situation that he wasn’t prepared for.”
History is cyclical, and actor Malcolm David Kelley who portrays Michael in Detroit was extremely aware of the parallels between the present and the past. “I can’t necessarily put the Black Panthers and The Black Lives Matter Movement in the same conversation,” he explained. “Activism seems to be the trending topic of our generation right now. But there’s a lot more that we need to do. And I feel like this is the kind of film that shows that not enough has changed in 50 years.”
Detroit is brutal in its violence, and little empathy or compassion can be found in the law enforcement officers. Poulter wanted to be sure that no humanity could be found in his portrayal of Krauss.”I wanted him to be judged as viciously as possible for the way that he conducts himself,” he explained.
Despite Detroit‘s massive ensemble cast, The New Edition Story’s Algee Smith’s Larry, a young musician is the film’s standout character. To get into Larry’s head, Smith went through a rollercoaster of emotions. “I was like, ‘How can I do this?’” he expressed. “It was very uncomfortable throughout the shooting it was almost like going online and seeing another unjust shooting. It was heartbreaking. 50 years later it’s the same thing.”
If nothing else Detroit is hauntingly authentic, which is what Academy Award winner Bigelow was going for. “My response to the script [was], I vividly recall fact checking a lot of the stuff that was happening,” explained Ben O’Toole who portrays Detroit police officer Flynn. “Some of the hardest to believe moments with the atrocities that happened are the truest. It’s what happened. It’s documented … anyway, it still gets to me.”
Alonzo also worked tirelessly to get an accurate representation of Congressman Conyers who took to the streets in the midst of the riots to calm the citizens of Detroit. “I probably watched every piece of film archived on [him],” he explained. “I just wanted to get his voice down, and when I performed, I wanted to be as authentic as possible because he’s still with us. He’s so loved in Detroit. There was no way that we could bring this film and name it Detroit and not do Congressman Conyers justice.”
Bigelow’s Detroit is a reimagining of a night of terror that begins as a game of dominance and ended in massacre, one that Black America and the United States have not even begun to heal from. Anthony Mackie, Samira Wiley, Jacob Lattimore, Leon Thomas III, Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever also star.
Detroit will debut in theaters Aug. 4.