Detroit is the film that America has been pretending it does not need for far too long. The film, which takes place during the title city’s famous 1967 riots, centers around the true story of a group of young people trapped at The Algiers Motel under false pretenses. When a toy gun goes off, a bevy of Detroit police, State Cops, and National Guardsmen rush to The Algiers’ back building to investigate. What they find there is not a gun, but a group of unarmed and innocent black men and white women hiding out from the insurgency. What ensues is a tirade of torture that has gone down in history as “The Death Game,” a ploy in which police officers select one person from the group to drag away and pretend to execute in order to coerce the others into confessing to a nonexistent crime. The game is fueled by the kind of racism that still haunts headlines about police interactions with black youth to this day.
The brilliantly selected cast includes John Boyega, who plays a security guard torn between the world of his race and the implications of his badge; Will Poulter, the cruelly trigger-happy Officer Krauss in charge of orchestrating the massacre; Kaitlyn Dever and Hannah Murray, two white women accused of being prostitutes who speak to the sexism encountered by many young females in police interactions; Jason Mitchell resides over the Algiers as Carl Cooper, the well respected Algiers resident who becomes understandably fed up with his persecution; Larry, played by Algee Smith, an up-and-coming motown singer, and his bodygaurd and friend Fred, played by Jacob Latimore, both victims of the being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The film takes on a topic that is both heavy and delicate and inspires subsequent emotions of both anger and sorrow in the audience. It opens with text over Harlem Renaissance paintings explaining the migration that inspired the aforementioned art movement and, eventually, the riots that followed. Beyond the introduction, the film gives little relief to the viewer; it is relentless in its rapid pace. The film begins with the Detroit police shutting down an underground speakeasy with majority-black attendees. Thrown from their party by white police, they began to fight back, taunting the police to go home. The film cuts in and out of using footage from the riots, giving it the feel of a documentary. In a rare moment of exaltation, the police are chased away and for a moment the audience cheers. But victories are few and far between in Detroit, and the horror that ensues erases the small triumphs of the Detroit rioters.
Katheryn Bigelow’s brilliant directorial eye makes the pain of the characters’ your pain, their anger your anger, their fear your fear. It is this style that engages the audience on a visceral level. When Officer Krauss (Will Poulter) is threatened by his chief with murder charges, the audience clapped and yelled in approval. When these charges amount to nothing, the rage in the theatre was palpable. The woman next to me crossed her arms and muttered “of course.” Much of this is brought about by Bigelow’s inventive use of cameras in constant motion. The omnipresence of her cameras created a hyper-realistic environment for the actors. “You feel like you’re in there and that’s such a vital part of her creativity. It has to be that way, otherwise you feel like you’re just looking at a movie,” says Jacob Latimore (Fred) of Bigelow’s direction. “She just had so much love and she trusted us so much. It almost shot like a war movie. There’s nothing glamorized about it, no special effects, just raw, uncut. Just us and the camera.” The closeness the actors felt to the action was only deepened by Bigelow’s request that they do as minimal research into their characters as possible. Algee Smith (Larry) spoke on the lack of preparation allotted to the actors. “She gave us the guideline to what happened at the Algiers somewhat, but she didn’t want us to dive in too deep. She wanted us, mentally, to be vulnerable on set and not to know what was going to happen to our characters. She just wanted us to have those real reactions on set…She wanted us to be in this place of the unknown, to be unprepared, so when we got in there it was real. It wasn’t shit that we were thinking about all night, like ‘I’m gonna say this line like this, I’m gonna do it like this’. We would get in there and react.” Bigelow was so dedicated to maintaining the authenticity of her actor’s reactions that Smith didn’t see the full script until the film wrapped. Smith laughs when describing this: “Yeah we trusted the method to her madness. She’s a fucking genius.”
I met with Algee Smith (Larry), Jacob Latimore (Fred), and Jason Mitchell (Carl Cooper) worlds away from The Algiers Motel, at Chicago’s prestigious Peninsula Hotel. Sitting on a white leather couch, the three seem more like brothers than co-stars, a bond they credit to the required emotional depth of the film. Smith smiles at Latimore and Mitchell and leans back on the couch. “Our relationships are so strong off set as well because, on every movie you build a new family, but with this I think the deeper the story the stronger the relationship.” This brotherhood ran deepest, perhaps, with his torturer in the film, Officer Kruass, played by Will Poulter. “The relationship is so opposite off set. As soon as they say cut, we just embrace for ten, fifteen minutes, and Will was just like ‘how many more times do we have to do this, I just want to get this over with.” Mitchell, who plays Cooper, the Algiers-native who becomes the first victim of “The Death Game” but also the first hostage to be let free. “They [Smith and Latimore] motivate me in a different type of light. When I was their age I was not even thinking I could be an actor. That wasn’t an option for me in my life at all. So to be in this room with them, with so much creative control and so much responsibility, was a really big learning experience for me.” His protectiveness made the scene in which he flees the hotel, leaving the younger men behind, especially poignant. “For me, it was like ‘now I gotta leave them in this.’ That stuff’s bullshit. It feels so real in the moment that you’re thinking ‘now they’ve gotta go through this without me, now I’m not there to protect them from nothing.’ That was the scariest thing for me.”
The torture that the on-screen characters experienced translated into lesser, but still very real, levels of trauma for the actors. Smith shakes his head, his boyishly large smile disappearing from his face. “I had to take myself to some of the darkest places, like thinking about my family in dark ways that I didn’t want to. And just sitting in that shit for two weeks was super hard.” Mitchell and Latimore, sitting beside him, nod along with him, their faces becoming shadowy and reflective. There is a beat of stillness in the room before Latimore’s smile returns. “All the music stuff was absolutely fun to shoot. After we went out of that motel, after those first couple of weeks, we needed some music, something to uplift our spirits, where we can show our personalities and have a good time,” Latimore agrees. In the film, Larry, an aspiring Motown singer, is faced with an empty audience after his performance at The Fox Theatre is cancelled and vacated due to the riots. He stands on the edge of the stage as Fred worriedly urges him to leave. Instead, he lets loose in one of the film’s most wrenching moments, and sings to the empty audience of his dreams. Smith nods vehemently in agreement. “The most fun thing was singing that Motown. I got to stand right where Michael Jackson stood, where Stevie Wonder stood, where The Temptations stood and I got to sing just like they did. Same acoustics, same set-up as it was back in ‘67.” The relief of the young actors, who also moonlight as musicians in real life, in singing Motown speaks volumes about the history and purpose of soul, a genre born out of Black struggle and resistance. The love child of rhythm and blues, gospel, and rock and roll, soul spoke to the pain of the Black experience by providing a place in which black people could be free. Soul music liberated black people from their fear, perhaps only momentarily. And yet, Larry resists performing soul to white audiences, a problem not unfamiliar today as genres founded by Black culture, such as rap and hip-hop, rise to the top of the charts while black people continue to be shot by officers who go free. He objects to the consumption of Black culture by white Americans who stand idly by when black people are beaten, subjugated, and murdered. Sitting in the theatre as a white woman, watching a film directed by a white woman, I felt this most poignantly.
Detroit and its actors do not pretend to be exclusive to the past. I could not ignore the pictures of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Philando Castille, and countless others that raced through my mind. When asked where Detroit leaves us in our current sociopolitical climate, Smith responds, “Detroit leaves us right where we are. If you look at Laquaan McDonald, they planted that [a weapon] on him. They do the same thing to Carl Cooper, that’s fifty years ago. Detroit gives a perfect description of what we’re going through today. We’ve gone through Ferguson riots, Boston riots, Milwaukee riots. It’s exactly the same thing.” The film also provides a clear plea. The abolition of all cops is unrealistic, as attested to by Mitchell, “if somebody busts into my house, I want to be able to call the police!” What the film does is beg for accountability. The scene in which the police were involved in has gone down in history as “The Algiers Incident,” a woefully understated moniker. The scene where they are arrested and taken to trial was met with glee and hopefulness by the audience, who clap and gasp in heartbreaking surprise. And yet, the police are acquitted.
It is impossible to find closure in Detroit, a film that ends with three deaths, seven men and women beaten, and zero convictions. That is surely intentional. The mothers and fathers of victims of police brutality rarely, if ever, get vindication – they didn’t in 1967 and they don’t 50 years later. Detroit does a masterful job of making the actor’s pain so visceral that it becomes your pain. Bigelow does not hold back with putting your face to the flames. The audience sees every moment of pain, heartbreak, and broken dreams that can be squeezed into two and a half hours. Because of this, the film can be an educational experience with respect to a community which has suffered many unjustifiable deaths. This sentiment was understood by Detroit Chief of Police James Craig, who made viewing the film a requirement for his entire staff. That is all Bigelow and her actors hope for, with the same finger crossing, nauseous expectation that their counterparts had during the trial in 1967- empathy and understanding.
Photo credit: Annapurna Pictures