A vivid and all-too-relevant exploration of America’s recent past.
Controversial subject matter fuels great stories, and with Detroit, director Kathryn Bigelow adeptly balances an expertly crafted cinema verité filmic and up-close-and-personal approach with screenwriter/producer Mark Boal’s tension-packed “you are there” narrative.
Director Kathryn Bigelow memorably demonstrated in the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, and subsequently, in Best Picture nominee Zero Dark Thirty, that she and frequent collaborator, screenwriter/producer Mark Boal are no strangers to controversial subject matter.
Aided by a brilliant cast of film veterans and rising talent, including John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker, Captain America: Civil War),John Krasinski (13 Hours), Will Poulter (The Revenant), Algee Smith (Army Wives), Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton), Jacob Lattimore (Collateral Beauty), Hannah Murray (Game of Thrones) and Kaitlyn Dever (Justified), Bigelow transports us back to the summer of 1967 into the boiling cauldron of civil unrest that ripped apart the city of Detroit.
The summer of 1967 was a pivotal moment in modern American history when the country was beset by growing political and social unrest: the escalation of the country’s military engagement in the Vietnam War and decades of racial injustice and repression. The epicenters of all this discontent and simmering rage proved to be the nation’s major cities with their systemic discrimination, racial disparities in housing and education, and growing unemployment in African-American communities.
Two nights after the Detroit rebellion began, a report of gunshots in the vicinity of a National Guard staging area prompted the Detroit Police Department, the Michigan State Police, the Michigan Army National Guard and a local private security guard to search and seize an annex of the nearby Algiers Motel. Flouting procedural rules, several policemen forcefully and viciously interrogated motel guests, conducting a “death game” in an attempt to intimidate someone, anyone, into confessing. By the end of the night, three unarmed young men had been gunned down point blank, and several other men and women were brutally beaten.
No gun was ever found.
Into The Cauldron
After decades of neglect and broken promises, the city’s urban center erupted in rebellious violence, and the militaristic response to the unrest further fanned the flames of discord. The combination of mayhem and might sometimes blurred the distinction between victim and perpetrator.
Beyond the egregious loss, the biggest casualty, however, was innocence, as demonstrated by the film’s central dramatic story. The true-life events of what transpired one terrifying night at the Algiers Motel and its aftermath, though well-known at the time, have since been relegated to historical footnote.
In Bigelow’s expert hands, the incidents of that fateful night and what followed are resurrected and vividly reconstructed. This up-close-and-personal approach mirrors the technique Bigelow mastered in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. The cinematic medium, she contends, “speaks to the subconscious, inviting an almost active engagement from the viewer.”
In The Hurt Locker, Bigelow successfully put our boots on the ground in Iraq and in Zero Dark Thirty, directly inside Osama Bin Laden’s compound. “In this case, I wanted to place the viewer inside the Algiers Motel, so that they’re experiencing it in nearly real time.” In unearthing this largely forgotten but critical moment in recent American history, Bigelow and Boal sought to honor the survivors and those who perished in a way that was thoughtful and respectful.
Boal, who first brought the idea to Bigelow and Annapurna Pictures through his Page 1 Productions, conducted exhaustive research into the incident and spoke to everyone he could find who was still alive and involved in the urban rebellion on the streets of Detroit.
Because Kathryn Bigelow and Barry Ackroyd utilized a familiar cinema verité docu-style camera, she and editor Billy Goldenberg made the decision to mix existing footage into the film to enhance the strong, central narrative and immerse the viewer. “During the research process I found footage from the rebellion and it blended so perfectly with Barry’s work that it could be inserted into the film and provide an almost tactile authenticity.”
Crafting The Screenplay
“On film, history can be a little antiseptic, especially if you are fifty years removed from it,” according to Boal. “Only when you meet the people involved do you begin to appreciate that history is really the story of the individuals. And that became the focus of my script.”
Beginning in 2014, Boal and his team of researchers interviewed dozens of participants in the actual disturbance, from African-American residents of the community to police and military personnel. His team of six full-time researchers, led by Pulitzer Prize-winning Detroit reporter, David Zeman, uncovered a trove of materials, including newspaper, radio and TV reportage, court records, FBI and Department of Justice investigation materials, contemporaneous accounts, sociological research, as well as documents that have never been publicly released from the Detroit Police Department and the University of Michigan.
Of the dozens of personal stories Boal came across, one stood out, the historical record of Larry Reed (portrayed in the film by Algee Smith), the lead singer in a popular up-and-coming singing group, The Dramatics, who had booked a room for the night at the Algiers motel for himself and his close friend, Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), in order to get them off the streets during curfew. “Larry had been pulled into this true crime story,” says Boal, “and it altered the course of the rest of his life; and that, in my mind, would form the film’s spine.”
Boal tracked down Reed, who had not spoken publicly about the incident in decades.
While initially hesitant, Reed eventually shared his wrenching experiences that night at the Algiers motel and Boal was so moved, he realized he had to bring this unjustly neglected moment of history to light. In addition to all the documentary evidence on the Algiers, he managed to find several other guests who also had been scarred into virtual silence by this terrifying incident.
Telling this ensemble story brought with it the onus of responsibility to tell it fairly and without judgment, says Bigelow, who also spoke to and spent time with the survivors. “When you’re making a story about a real-life event and you meet the witnesses to that event, you want to ensure that those experiences did not happen in vain; that you can convey the resonance of their story and impart it to the audience.”
Adds Boal, “when you choose to tell a real-life story such as this one, you have to come at it with a sense of personal responsibility both to history and even more so, the individuals involved, some of whom survived and others who did not. While we were making a fictional entertainment and not a documentary, we were freighted with the responsibility of honoring the past in a way that is thoughtful and respectful.”
Prologue As Context
Before plunging into the Detroit uprising and the central narrative, Bigelow wanted to give the viewer some socio-historical background into what led up to the conflagration as well as some insight into the city’s cultural landscape in 1967. “Having been a longtime admirer of the work of the great African American artist Jacob Lawrence, his seminal series regarding the great migration seemed the right voice to describe the decades leading up to the civil unreast of the 1960’s, so that the viewer can better understand the anger and inequity that had been building over so many decades and put this country on a collision course.
We approached the Estate of Jacob Lawrence with an idea, to blend the panels into one another, one leading to the next. When the time came to add text, again we were in awe of the scope and complexity of what led to the turmoil of the 1960’s. This time we turned to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Director of the Hutchins Center for African American Research at Harvard University,” Bigelow shared.
Up Close And Personal
In addition to the voluminous research they conducted, the Detroit filmmakers were fortunate to have three witnesses on hand, all of whom had been involved in the Algiers Motel incident that fateful night in summer 1967. Their accounts gave the filmmakers unique insight into the unfolding chaos that developed over the course of the brutal interrogation.
Melvin Dismukes, Larry Reed and Julie Ann Hysell helped the film team piece together the events from differing perspectives. They were also brought on as consultants to help the filmmakers be as accurate as possible during shooting.
After fifty years, however, the truth about that night and his part in it has finally come to light, says Dismukes . “This movie, Detroit, will tell you what really happened.”
For Reed, Detroit is more than a film. It is a record of a pivotal moment in twentieth century American history. While for many years Reed was reticent to talk about that life altering night, when he was approached by the filmmakers, he felt he owed it to his friend and the others who lost their lives to come forward. “My purpose in opening up now is that people need to know what happened,” says Reed. “I don’t want this event to be forgotten, what my friend and I went through. It’s something that should never have happened.”
Hysell is thankful for the movie Detroit and the filmmakers’ sensitive but honest handling of what transpired. “I thought I’d have a hard time during filming because I don’t know that I’ve ever dealt with what happened that night. But Kathryn surrounded me with such a great group of people and they helped me through it. The only time I lost it was when they were filming the courtroom scene and the not guilty verdict was announced. I literally had to leave the set. I mean, those people were murdered. In cold blood. They were murdered and the cops were acquitted.
“That’s why this was such an important story to tell. I’d like people to look at this story and say, ‘yes, it’s time that things changed.’ That’s what I’d like to see happen.”
Holding Up The Past As A Mirror
Any similarities to the nation’s present-day discussion of institutional racism and the events depicted in Detroit was purely intentional, say the filmmakers. “I think this is an important story to tell,” says producer/screenwriter Boal, “because one of the values of looking at the past is that it enables you to look at the present from another perspective. And to ask questions such as ‘how much has changed?’ And ‘how much has not changed?’”
The events of summer 1967 in Detroit and other major American cities “were not a unique moment in time,” Boal continues. “They were part of a continuum. And to the extent that we are made aware of that continuum, maybe we can be more thoughtful about it.”
The principal cast in Detroit came away with their own take on the film.
”I was very proud to work with filmmakers who are seeking to do more than simply entertain with their work, who are trying to raise awareness of real-life issues and problems in society,” says Will Poulter. “In order for us to move forward, it’s vitally important that the media and art highlight these issues.”
“When the movie ended, I wasn’t sure how I felt,” admits Algee Smith. “On the one hand, I felt happy to be a part of this important story. On the other, I felt sorrow for what the actual people had to go through and angry because of the injustice that followed. Let’s just say I was confused, though ultimately I felt immense gratitude that this story was told.”
According to Bigelow, “If the purpose of art is to agitate for change, if we are truly ready to start addressing the inequity of race in this country, we need to be willing to listen.I hope this film will encourage some small part of that dialogue, and we find a way to heal the wounds that have existed for far too long in this country.”