'Detroit' Movie director and cast talk about how far city has come since '67

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow is the first to admit she wasn’t qualified to make her latest movie, “Detroit,” which is about the 1967 Detroit riot – perhaps the city’s darkest chapter and one of America’s lasting stains.

“I had a lengthy conversation with myself. I really, obviously, analyzed it long and hard and I thought: ‘Am I the right person to make this film? Absolutely not. No way.’ On the other hand, this story needed to be told and that kind of overrode any other hesitation. Here I thought I have this platform, I have this medium I’m fairly conversant in, I have this opportunity. This story – I think – needs to see the light of day, so I took advantage of that opportunity at the same time realizing that it’s a concern, it’s a challenge. I did feel the necessity to tell the story was greater than perhaps not telling the story,” explained Bigelow.

To mark the 50th anniversary of this tragic event, “Detroit” – which opened nationwide on Aug. 4 – chronicles what happened at the Algiers Motel, located at 8301 Woodward Avenue, on July 25-26, 1967 during the five days of unrest. The riot began on July 23, 1967 when Detroit police raided a blind pig – an unlicensed, after-hours bar – on 12th Street, arresting more than 80 black patrons. This attracted a crowd of onlookers, one of whom threw a bottle at a cop, starting the unrest. The National Guard and the Michigan State Police were called in to assist.

Bigelow, the Oscar-winning director of 2008’s “The Hurt Locker,” attended a press conference July 24 at the Foundation Hotel in Detroit, along with frequent collaborator Mark Boal – who won an Oscar for writing “The Hurt Locker” – and 15 actors starring in “Detroit.” The actors included Anthony Mackie (“Captain America: Civil War”), John Boyega (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”), Will Poulter (“The Revenant”), et al. They also attended the red carpet world premiere at the Fox Theatre in Detroit July 25.

“Malcolm X said rioting is giving voice to the voiceless. I feel like we come from a country, from a people, from a generation of activists – of riot-eers – I guess I should say,” said Mackie, who played Greene, a Vietnam vet staying at the Algiers that night. “It’s something that will never go away and it’s something that’s not new. When you look at this movie, what Mark and Kathryn were able to do – which drew me in and really blew me away when I saw the movie – was give voice to the voiceless.”

It was reported that a sniper fired shots and was seen at the Algiers, which had a seedy reputation. The police raided the motel’s three-story annex, located behind the main complex. Per eyewitness testimony, Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell, “Straight Outta Compton”), fired blanks from a starter pistol, leading authorities to believe shots came from the Algiers. 

The police rounded up the nine guests – seven black men and two white women – and lined them up against the wall in the lobby, brutalizing them, threatening to kill them unless they named the sniper. The three cops – played in the movie by Poulter, Ben O’Toole (“Hacksaw Ridge”), and Jack Reynor (“Transformers: Age of Extinction”) – would take a man into a separate room, fire a shot into the ceiling, then tell the others they killed him (when he was really still alive, unknown to them, but ordered to keep quiet) in order to force them to talk, coercing their participation in the “death game.” In the end, however, the police killed three black men – including Cooper – claiming self-defense.

Poulter’s character was an amalgam of several Detroit cops involved at the Algiers (the actual cops were Ronald August, Robert Paille, and David Senak). Poulter researched the riot and Detroit. The Detroit Police Department in 1967 was 95 percent white at a time when Detroit was approximately 40 percent black. A racially motivated police force wasn’t uncommon.

“In my eyes, whether he was a police officer or not, he’d always been a racist. It was entrenched in him and he was part of a society where racism was entrenched. So it’s an unfortunate combination that a racist might be a police officer and that’s something that we simply can’t allow for. That was no real screening for that,” explained Poulter. “Preparing to play a racist, the biggest challenge, of course, is you’re not going to find any justification for your behavior. As an actor you have to find something you identify with ... Unfortunately, there was nothing in our characters that we could really latch on to and relate to, other than the fact that we were white men.”

Poulter met with Detroit Police Chief Jim Craig, who responded positively to “Detroit.” He stated that Craig wants to make “Detroit” mandatory viewing for all police officers, so that they’re informed about the past and see the progress currently being made. Today, the DPD is the most diverse police force in the nation, according to city officials.

“I think the first step we can all take is by educating ourselves where we lack knowledge, understanding the experiences of other people, shedding light on social injustices ... and developing empathy and compassion for ethnicity groups outside of our own – that’s been my experience as a white person,” said Poulter. “In this movie, I learned a great deal of the white role in racial history and the fact that, as a white person and as white people, I think when we’re invited to participate in the conversation (about racism), we absolutely have to participate. It’s not acceptable to avoid the topic of race and racism anymore because as long as we shy away from that, we contribute to the problem. We need to recognize our part in all of this.”

Also present at the Algiers was Melvin Dismukes, a black security guard. His decision to remain in an effort to keep more people from getting killed cost him. He was arrested and accused of murder, but eventually acquitted. Further, the black community shunned him. As a result, he left Detroit. Boyega said Dismukes’ presence provided “a sense of stability and safety” – such as it was – for the people on the wall, toeing a fine line.

“Trying to do a good thing during that kind of chaos doesn’t matter. I could have stood up to the police officers, but they probably would have shot me and claimed self-defense. But nobody was interested in hearing my side of the story,” said Dismukes. “I had no authority to stop what was going on in the lobby. I just felt completely hopeless.”

The three police officers were tried twice. While they were acquitted, none of them returned to the DPD. Their trials were moved to Mason and Flint due to pretrial publicity and John Hersey’s book, “The Algiers Motel Incident.”

In “Detroit,” Auerbach (John Krasinski, “13 Hours”), the cops’ attorney, was loosely based on lawyer Norman Lippitt, who still practices law in Birmingham. Lippitt was the attorney for the Detroit Police Officers Association, who defended August, Paille, and Senak. His job wasn’t to determine their guilt or innocence, but to establish reasonable doubt.

“Nevertheless, in these cases the defendants told me they were innocent and my obligation was simply to defend them to the best of my ability,” said Lippitt. “Once my clients were charged with criminal offenses, as the cases progressed, we made headlines almost on a weekly or daily basis.”

The trial depicted in “Detroit” occurs in Mason, Bigelow stated.

“The trial was extremely complicated, so we did our best to make it expedient without betraying the integrity of the facts that existed – that’s a different needle to thread,” she said.

Boal came to Bigelow with the idea for “Detroit” in 2015.  

“I heard this story and I thought, ‘All right, that’s 50 years ago, but it’s today and it’s yesterday and it’s potentially tomorrow.’ And so I felt that ... this has to stop. I don't know how to stop it other than to try to create a situation or a platform where there can be meaningful dialogue,” she said.

“Yes, it’s a story that’s probably familiar to people in Detroit, but outside of Detroit, nobody knew about this. And there’s probably a lot of other stories like this and maybe those other stories will see the light of day if this can generate meaningful conversations.”

Boal agreed.

“I hope that movie becomes a platform for Detroit to talk about what’s happening now in a positive and in a negative (sense) as far as the unequalness of (it all) ... To me, it’s an important story. It’s an important piece of history; it’s worth looking at, even though it’s uncomfortable and it’s difficult,” he said. “I’m not an expert on Detroit today. The thing I love most about the city are the people in it. The spirit of the people here is really amazing.”

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