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"Detroit" film seeks to start discussion about past, present -- and future
DETROIT — Kathryn Bigelow knew the idea of a white director making a movie about the Detroit civil unrest of 1967 would raise eyebrows.
But when a grand jury in Missouri declined to indict police officer Darren Dean Wilson for the 2014 shooting death of resident Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Bigelow — the first woman to ever win an Academy Award for directing, for 2008’s “The Hurt Locker” — shed any reservations.
“I felt a very strong, emotional reaction to that,” Bigelow, 65, recalled while speaking to reporters at Detroit’s Foundation Hotel before the premiere of “Detroit” at the Fox Theatre. “I thought the story is 50 years ago, but it’s today and it’s potentially tomorrow, and so I felt this was a conversation. This has to stop. I don’t know how to stop it other than try to create a situation or platform where there can be meaningful dialogue.
“I have this medium I can work with, and it’s my way to contribute to that conversation. That’s what really motivated me. This story needed to be told; That kind of overroded any other hesitation.”
“Detroit” — which opened Friday, July 28, in Detroit and goes wide on Aug. 4 — comes from a script by writer/producer Mark Boal, who collaborated with Bigelow on “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” It’s a powerful, provocative, dark depiction of the violent events that tore Detroit apart in July 1967, focusing primarily on the Algiers Motel, where three unarmed black men were killed by police, who terrorized other residents during a prolonged interrogation.
“To me this is an important story,” said Boal, 44, who added extensive research in addition to John Hersey’s 1968 book about the incident in putting together the script. “A lot of the people who didn’t live through it don’t know this story, and even people from Detroit don’t, either. If that’s true in Detroit, it’s certainly true nationally, and that story had been forgotten.
“But it’s an important piece of history, and it’s worth looking at even though, yeah, it’s uncomfortable, and it’s difficult.”
The Algiers story, and Detroit history’s of unrest in general, was certainly enlightening to the mostly youthful cast Bigelow assembled for the film, including British actor Will Poulter (“The Revenant,” “The Maze Runner”), playing the racist and sadistic patrolman Krauss (a composite of several Detroit Police officers), John Boyega (“Star Wars”) as stoic private security guard Melvin Dismukes, a real-life figure who watched events unfold at the Algiers, Anthony Mackie (“The Hurt Locker,” “8 Mile” and Marvel’s the Falcon) and Algee Smith as Cleveland Larry Reed, then-lead singer of the fledgling vocal group the Dramatics, whose life trajectory was dramatically altered by the horror he experienced.
Author and commentator Michael Eric Dyson, who served as a consultant on the film, calls “Detroit” “the third installment of a trilogy of war films” by Bigelow, following “Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” The director concurs.
“I think it’s a type of war film, yes,” she explained. “The anger and the emotion that was experienced in the city is extremely acute. It was pretty profound.”
Amid the contemporary backdrop of shooting deaths (Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, etc.) and Black Lives Matter, “Detroit” lets its contemporary relevance be implied. But it forcefully, if quickly, establishes a backdrop of institutionalized racism — particularly in Detroit’s police force, which was 95 percent white in 1967 as the city’s population approached 40 percent black — and inequitable employment and housing situations that fomented the unrest. The parallels were not lost on the filmmakers or the cast as filming took place, primarily in Boston after Michigan rescinded its film incentive program.
“It’s been heavy,” Boyega, 25, said prior to the Fox premiere. “It’s unfortunate that we have to shed a light on something that’s still going on. It’s been 50 years, and we still are having the same (issues). My perspective has improved. Now I am completely and utterly motivated to learn more and keep discovering what’s my part in all this. I want this film to spark a conversation that moves us forward.”
That sentiment was echoed throughout the production’s recent stay in Detroit, which included visits to historic sites — including Gordon Park, which sits on the spot where the unrest began. “I hope that the power of this movie can make a change,” said Julie Delaney, one of two young white women from Ohio who was at the Algiers and is portrayed by Hannah Murray in the film. “People certainly have to look and see that things are still happening like this.”
“Detroit” has people talking. Rolling Stone said the film “has the adrenaline punch of a thriller and the deep-seated sorrow that comes with watching history repeat itself.” Dyson praised the film as “an extraordinary achievement” and Bigelow as “a hero for telling this story ... she has the gall and the courage and the unabashed temerity to tell the truth about what’s going on.”
Current Detroit Police Chief James Craig, who was a 10-year-old in the precinct where the unrest broke out, said the department plans to use “Detroit” as a tool for historical awareness and sensitivity training for personnel.
All of this is welcome to Bigelow and Boal — who hope the discussion stretches even farther as the film’s run expands.
“My hope is to start a conversation about bridges that divide and a racial divide,” Bigelow said. “If that could happen it would be tremendous.”
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