The latest film from Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow might be based on a real life horror story from 50 years ago, but there’s almost never been a more powerful time to tell it than 2017.
Detroit, out next month, tells the story of what happened during a fateful night at the Algiers Motel, during the Detroit riots of 1967.
Over the course of one night, a swathe of white, uniformed officers stormed the Algiers Motel and turned out the occupants, lining them up and playing a “death game” to force someone – anyone – to confess to being a sniper.
By morning, three unarmed black men were shot dead. Nobody was ever charged, and no gun was ever found.
At a time when the President of the United States is publicly sparring with black NFL players taking a knee against the shooting of unarmed black men, when ‘fake news’ has become a catch-cry for stories those in power disagree with, and when white supremacy groups are feeling brave enough to crawl out of the woodwork and into broad daylight, it feels more important than ever that a story like this gets told.
“We still have people who are not treated fairly and left behind – minorities and women and so on and so forth,” Anthony Mackie, who plays Greene, one of the men caught up at the Algiers Motel, told PEDESTRIAN.TV.
“We’re the generation of change. We’re at a point now where we can right our wrongs and go into the next phase of our lives being open minded and understanding and compassionate towards our fellow man. And Detroit puts you in a position to raise that conversation, we put it at an equal platform where everyone can have it.”
For Will Poulter, who plays the cop ring-leading his colleagues into witness intimidation, harassment, and murder, playing such a amoral person absolutely took its toll.
“There was a moment on set when Will broke down crying,” says Algee Smith, who plays the real-life character Larry Reed. “He looked at Kathryn and asked, ‘How many more times do we have to do this scene because it’s hurting me’. And that made the rest of us pretty much fall apart. I tried to give him a hug but then I just broke down with him. And I thought, if somebody can feel all that pain and emotion just acting, how much more painful must it have been in real life?”
For his part, Poulter couldn’t relate to his character at all, and instead had to rely on “understanding the negative”, researching what it meant to be a cop in 1967 Detroit.
“As far as my own preparations go, I researched the socio-political climate of Detroit, and America at that time,” he said. “What it was to be a policeman on the force in ’67, a force that was 95 percent white… Things like that are, I think, key to breaking into the psychology of my character. Then you add some sociopathic tendencies, and I guess you get [my character] Krauss.”
Mark Boal, the Oscar-winning screenwriter and producer behind the script, undertook a huge amount a research when researching this film, tracking down and interviewing key witnesses to the riots before settling on the story of the Algiers Motel.
Three of the witnesses – Melvin Dismukes (played in the film by Star Wars star John Boyega), Larry Reed (Smith) and Julie Ann Hysell (Game of Thrones‘ Hannah Murray) – provided extensive interviews to help the team piece together the events from different perspectives.
They also signed on as consultants to ensure the film was as accurate as possible, with Hysell being present for pretty much all of it.
“I kind of stayed my distance, because I felt so uncomfortable about reenacting her reality,” Mackie told P.TV. “She was very pleasant as a woman, but very understanding of the situation that we were in. It wasn’t as emotional for her as I know it would be for me.”
“She was incredibly strong, her composure throughout the process was crazy,” added Poulter. “Shooting those scenes took a toll on all of us, I cannot even fathom what it was like for her.”
In fact, Hysell says that the only time she lost it was when they filmed the moment the “not guilty” verdict was read aloud in court.
“I literally had to leave the set,” she says. “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.”
Detroit opens in Australian cinemas on November 9.