Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” is a film that we are going to talk about for a long time. That conversation will concern more than its incredible craft, which features Bigelow recreating the proverbial war zone that is Detroit during its 1967 riots, and tells of a horrific episode of police brutality in the city’s Algiers Motel. Viewers will also be talking, and debating, about its ideological merits as a studio project that centers its narrative around an unflinching portrayal of injustice, as expressed through racist institutions committing heinous acts.
The story is told by an ensemble of numerous fleshed-out performances, in which the likes of John Boyega (“Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens”) or Anthony Mackie (“Captain America: Winter Soldier”) are only supporting actors to a vibrant batch of fresh, unforgettable talent. Three of the men at the center of the film’s events are played by Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell and Algee Smith. Smith portrays Larry Reed, a real-life witness to the events at the Algiers Motel, who is shown in this film with an incredibly powerful moment crooning "If You Haven't Got Love" to an evacuated theater. He’s supported by his pal Fred (Latimore), of whom he travels to the Algiers with in search of peace in the midst of there 1967 riots. While in the motel, they meet an eccentric man named Carl (Mitchell), who delivers a stunning monologue about how being black is like always looking into the barrel of a gun. Minutes later, Carl fires a starter pistol outside his window, causing the police to rush the motel, thinking they were under attack by a sniper. All three of them, along with others, are then assaulted and tortured by a group of cops (lead by a ferocious Will Poulter) who are looking for the non-existent shooter. Latimore and Smith's characters in particular spend a great deal of the film being assaulted with their hands up, against a wall, as we watch a horrific depiction of violence that unmistakably reflects current headlines.
RogerEbert.com spoke with Latimore, Mitchell and Smith about Bigelow’s unusual directing process in orchestrating this true-life story, why they trusted her to tell a narrative that’s outside of her perspective, the stories behind filming some of their best scenes and more.
I don’t usually start interviews like this, but holy shit, guys. This movie.
JACOB LATIMORE: Right?
When you first saw this script, what were your reactions?
ALGEE SMITH: I got to be honest with you, man. I didn’t get the script until we were almost done shooting the whole film. I didn’t even meet Larry, my character, until we were done. Kathryn kept us in this place of the unknown, she didn’t want us to come super-prepared, she wanted us to get in there and be surprised by what was happening to us. I felt like the method to her madness.
When did you get dialogue, then?
AS: It came the day of, when we went to do the scenes.
JL: She kind of had it guided out for us, but at the same time she wanted to know what we could bring to the table. She trusted, you know what I mean? She kept saying, “How would you say it? How would you walk into the room? How would you shake that man’s hand?” You know what I mean? Because we got our own swag.
JASON MITCHELL: She definitely opened up for a world for us to be able to maneuver inside of. It wasn’t the classic, "Oh, we do a set-up, then we do a rehearsal and then we block it and then we come shoot it." It wasn’t set up like that at all. She put us in this world and made sure the cameramen knew to maneuver around us and we never had to look for the camera. She just let us do us.
So you were always on.
JL: Always. There were sometimes when the camera, the way the camera would be set-up, the audience feel like they’re actually there in the room with us, sometimes the camera would be in some places I didn’t even expect. I turned my head and “Oh! I looked right into the camera. Aw shit!”
So you have to constantly be aware the camera is there, but also not think about it at all. You could have broken up a good take.
JL: She wasn’t even concerned about it. She was like, “If that happens, keep rolling with it.” That’s how dope the cameramen were, there were like three cameras in the room and you don’t know where they are. The DP was incredible, it was almost shot like a war movie.
How did you guys get on the project?
AS: So, me and Jacob’s audition process was different than Jason’s. Our first audition was with our casting director, Vicky Thomas, she’s amazing. She didn’t even have the sides for this movie, she had sides from another movie, just with the same essence. The second audition is when I saw Jacob and pretty much everyone else that was cast. And Kathryn gets in there and she’s like [in a higher voice] “OK guys, we don’t have any sides for you, but I want you to guys to make up a song right here on the spot, freestyle, and then an officer is going to come in and throw you against the wall and you just react. [laughs] And we were like, “What?” And so we just started singing this song, this random song, and then one of the officers came in. But that audition really solidified our characters.
JL: It was incredible, probably the most unique audition I’ve done. And after the movie comes out, I’m thinking they should release the audition footage. Even if it’s just online, something for us to post. The process, you know?
And what’s your story, Jason?
JM: For me, luckily I was really blessed for Kathryn to be a fan of mine. She fell in love with “Straight Outta Compton,” she fell in love with the way the movie opened. So, due to the fate of my character, she felt like it was necessary for her to skip over my whole team and call my personally on my personal phone at home.
AS: Can you believe this?!
JM: I couldn’t’ believe it. I was at home watching basketball and she calls me and I’m like, “Oh my god.”
It’s not often you get an Oscar-winning director calling you on the phone.
JM: Exactly. So she gives me this whole thing about what the movie was going to be about, and the riffing. And then she was like, "The fate of the character is fairly quick, but I need you to put [holds arms out wide] this much stuff into [makes arm distance smaller] this much time. And you’re the person I trust to do it. You’re the top of my list for that." I’m like, “Yo. Say no more, I’m on my way!” It was a true blessing.
And Jason you have that monologue towards the middle of the film, in which you talk about how being black is like constantly being under the gaze of a gun. It’s gonna be eye-opening for a lot of people that see this movie. Was that in the script? Was that all you?
JM: They had some bullet points for me to hit, certain things that really struck me. But the rest of it, they were like, “Do you. However you want to block it, however it feels, whatever you’re thinking. Go for it.”
AS: So say those bullet points would take up like two minutes of the scene, and Kathryn’s gonna give you six minutes total in that scene, so the rest is on you!
JL: Whenever we did something that came together she’d be like [in high voice] “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
AS: [In high voice] “I love it!”
JL: She just has so much love and joy inside her, it was dope.
What was the moment when you started trusting her? She’s going on this huge endeavor for something that’s really outside of her experience and her perspective.
JM: I love this question, I love this question.
JL: For real. To be honest, I trusted her from the get-go, because for me it wasn’t about … first of all, it’s a very valid point that she may not be totally engulfed in the essence of that world. But we see her brilliance as a storyteller, and that’s what we look at. We see that she’s done it time and time again, and she won an Oscar for it one time, so that’s the importance to be able to tell these people’s story that they never got a chance to, and being able to highlight injustice. That’s the point, it’s not about who’s doing it, it’s about who can convey that story. And I think it’s more powerful. She has the audience that we may not able to reach, and she’s introducing it to people who don’t know in our community and people who don’t know in her community. I think as a result, we just want people to unite.
JM: She got a huge pair, you know what I mean? You know what, what if someone lashes out and they’re like, “She’s throwing us under the bus!” You know what I mean? What if people do that to her? She has so many things that could happen, but in her mind she’s like, “I’m a storyteller.” But I thought it was really dope, I started to trust her, when she told us that she basically hired us because she knows that she can trust us. “I don’t know what to tell you guys to do. I’m trusting you, what would you do? That’s why you have a job.” She made us realize, it was like, “Oh, OK, I get it.” Because she’s not, for lack of a better expression, the white lady that’s trying to claim she understands black. You gotta trust people like that. That’s love.
That goes with the idea of Mark Boal, as well, a white screenwriter. You’re giving me the idea that it was more of a collaboration.
AS: And Mark Boal is an amazing journalist! The way he tells a story, it’s so important. It’s not about what you say, it’s how you say it.
JL: You gotta respect the people who truly go in and do the homework. It’s not just like, we got a little bit of information and we’re just gonna let it rip. They really went to Detroit, talked to Larry, talked to Julie [Hysell, a survivor of the event]. Julie was on set everyday, checking everything out. They really did their research. And her track record shows that she follows the truth, she doesn’t hold nothing back. This story, it hurts, you know what I mean?
And to make people watch a story about injustice, brutality.
JL: Something that happened 50 years ago and still seeing, and it just shows that we are not being biased. This is happening. It’s been happening. We see where the issue is, and where to go and where to communicate.
When you were making the film, were you all talking about current events?
AS: When we were filming, we were seeing current events. Me and the cast mates were outside by the trailers and we saw an elderly man get brutalized by the police on social media, and we were just crying like, this is 50 years ago, but this is right now. We didn’t have to search for it at all to see what was going on.
JL: The old man wasn’t physically capable of being a threat, he had nothing in his hands. That moment, and then for us to be on set, about to say action, it was like, “This is reality.”
JM: To be honest, I think Kathryn does a real good job of depicting the two, you know what I mean? They have a very intense world that dehumanizes everything, you know what I mean? You see everything on social media, and then you scroll up, and it’s gone. It kind of desensitizes the situation, but if you’re an artist over here trying to make a film, you’re focused on that part, you know what I mean? You got to focus on intensifying this in order to humanize that. She would constantly, at least for me I know, she would try to get me not to worry about what was happening today, and realize that this is facts and this is all the past, and it’s like, let’s be able to give them the facts. Things are happening today, but, you got to stay out the way of that. You can’t get caught up, you gotta go make the art and make it beautiful.
I have to say, one film that “Detroit” brought to mind was the upcoming documentary “Whose Streets?”, which captures a community’s various tweets and recordings during the tragedy of Ferguson, MO in 2014, and puts them into one linear narrative and perspective.
JM: You know what’s crazy, when Ferguson happened I was shooting “Straight Outta Compton.” I’d keep getting this lash of like, "This is where we at, this is what’s happening." It’s good to sometimes get confirmation that you’re doing the right thing, but man, revolutionary shit is draining, you know what I mean!
AS: Like physically draining, emotionally, physically. The first two weeks on set, the first thing we shot was the motel. Can you imagine how, not knowing and then getting in there, and it’s like “Oh, shit, this is what we’re doing?” Thrown right into the ringer.
JL: The wall was emotionally exhausting. And we’d have to re-shoot some scenes, and it’d be like, “Kathryn, what?” She’s like, “Oh no, we just gotta get the continuity right!”
JM: “More blood! More blood! It was all wrong, let’s do it all over.” She’s such a perfectionist.
You spent a lot of time on that wall. How do you keep that emotional intensity going?
AS: The thing that kept me going, I hated doing it but I had to think about my family in horrible situations and put myself in dark places that I didn’t want to go to, but that was the only way I could stay there and at least a glimpse of what those actual people went through.
I have to ask then, because Will Poulter comes out of nowhere in this movie, I remember him just being that dorky kid in “We’re the Millers.”
Exactly. How do you guys work with him?
JM: Initially, Kathryn didn’t want us to work together at all until it was time to work. She didn’t want us to see each other on set, any of that. She wanted it to be really intense. But Will fully, fully committed. So on set, he was very intense, he was all of the above. But at the same time, he has a heart of gold. If it was too much for him … everybody had their breakdown moments, they had a moment where that person had to be embraced. And he would do it to it. For him to be 23 and focused, I told him, he also got a bigger pair than these American guys, because I guarantee you, I’m telling you, you’re not gonna find an ex-cop who is gonna come in there and play like that. It’s at a certain level, like when people are behind closed doors, you don’t know how they’re gonna act. And he shows you every piece of it. And without him, it’s not the same film! Without that intensity it’s not the same film. I just appreciate him.
JL: I met Will on “The Maze Runner,” so our relationship is really solid, we connect. So for us to do some of those scenes towards the end of the project, shooting some of those scenes, it was tough, for all of us. As soon as they said cut, we just embraced for like ten minutes. “Let’s get out of here, let’s go the hotel, have a drink.”
Algee, I have to ask: You have that show-stopping scene in the beginning of the movie when you sing alone in an evacuated Fox Theater. It’s the moment when I realized this movie was truly going to be on another level.
JM: [To Smith] I told you, didn’t I tell you that?!
What was your experience making that scene? What was going through your head?
AS: The only thing I was thinking in my mind was how would it feel if my whole career got stripped from me, if I could never act if I could never sing, if I could never do any of this again, if I lost my voice if I lost my legs, if I could never do anything. How would I feel? And that’s what I felt in that moment, and sometimes on set where I get so lost that I’m lightheaded and I’m out of there and I’m gone. That’s real life for me, and I know when I have those moments, that’s when I know it was intense. And then Jacob being right there helping me, being like, “We gotta go,” and my character saying, “I don’t want to hear that,” him being in my ear and thinking that at the same time, I had everything set up to be able to do that.
And when you’re singing, is it clear in your mind? Or is there so much going on?
AS: Yeah, when I was singing, it was clear. I was just letting it all go.