Movie’s Black Actors Give Their Take On Detroit

The gripping story Detroit opens Friday, August 4.

Editor’s Note: The official synopsis for Detroit, which is quickly turning into a very controversial movie, reads:

“In the summer of 1967, rioting and civil unrest starts to tear apart the city of Detroit. Two days later, a report of gunshots prompts the Detroit Police Department, the Michigan State Police and the Michigan Army National Guard to search and seize an annex of the nearby Algiers Motel. Several policemen start to flout procedure by forcefully and viciously interrogating guests to get a confession. By the end of the night, three unarmed men are gunned down while several others are brutally beaten.”

Kathryn Bigelow directs the film, which opened in limited release last Friday and debuts to mass audiences this Friday, August 4. In 2010, she won the Academy Award for Best Director for her film The Hurt Locker, which won the Best Picture Oscar. Bigelow also directed Zero Dark Thirty in 2012 about the hunt for Osama bin Laden and helmed the popular action crime flick Point Break in 1991.

The movie Detroit has come under scrutiny, especially by some in the Black community, over the way White people tell this harrowing Black story. Last week, three Black actors from the movie – Algee Smith, Jacob Lattimore, and Jason Mitchell – held interviews with Chicago media and N’DIGO’s TJ Armour was there to record some of their insights about the film and Kathryn Bigelow’s direction. – David Smallwood, N’DIGO Editor)

TJ Armour for N’DIGO: What were your first thoughts upon reading the script?

Algee Smith: I actually didn’t get the script. Kathryn didn’t give me the script until we were done shooting the whole movie, or rather, when my character was done. She did that because she didn’t want us to be prepared. She wanted us to come in and really react. Jacob says it all the time: she wanted us to come in with the mindset that tomorrow’s not promised. She informed us about The Algiers and then, of course, the overall riots, but we didn’t get in-depth character info heading into shooting.

Jacob Lattimore: At the beginning, we sort of knew the background of the movie and events, but we didn’t have the whole thing. We were kind of just happy to work with Kathryn Bigelow. She creates these dope stories, so we’re thinking, “We gotta be a part of this.” But even the audition process was mostly improvisation.

Jason Mitchell: My process was slightly different because I was riding a nice wave coming off (my role in) King Kong. She really respected the fact that I had been busting my ass, so instead of sending the script through the pipeline and through my email and all that, she actually got my number and called me.

I’m at home watching the game and she called my cell phone and gave me the whole pitch herself. She basically said, “I know (my character) Carl’s fate, so I wanted to ask you this favor myself.” And I just felt completely honored like everybody else – between the climate of the film and working with Kathryn Bigelow, I’m already honored – but then to get into the story and learn about it all; it was really just an honor.

Algee Smith

How about when you all first saw the finished product?

Algee: Whoooo! It made the whole process of not knowing worth it. She kept us in such a place where we were just mentally vulnerable. You know usually when you begin working on a movie, everything is laid out for you as far as scheduling and all. What scenes you’re gonna do on this day and this day and so on. It was a bit frustrating after awhile. You shoot a really intense scene and then it’s over and you’re like, “Okay I want to know something…”

Jacob: Yeah, it was pretty wild. People would ask, “Are you free to do such and such?” and all I could tell them was “I just know we wrap on shooting this particular day. I can’t tell you much more than that.”

But yeah, once we saw the finished movie, it just made it all worth it. I was in tears, man. I just remember on the set, the gunshots were so loud that I had to get earplugs. There was one scene where we’re running down the street during a riot sequence and she set off a bomb without telling us to really get the effect of us being scared on tape.

What were some of the things you were able to learn from working with a director of Kathryn’s caliber?

Jason: I learned what the real truth of the saying “less is more” means. She didn’t do all that coaching with us. She didn’t go, “In this scene, I want you to turn towards the camera and go…” No, she didn’t do any of that.

She told us, “I’m putting you under pressure already. I’m not giving you that many scripted lines because I trust you. If I could act, I wouldn’t have you here. I would be acting, not directing. So if we’re going to do this, I’m going to make ALL of this available to you, instead of confining you as an actor.

“We aren’t trying to force anybody to feel one way. There’s no one way to feel about this.”

“Then I’m going to get on my cameramen and make sure they catch EVERYTHING. If it’s your fingers nervously tapping your knee, or whatever it is, they’re gonna find it!” And that’s incredible to hear.

Prior to shooting the infamous “Jigaboo/Wanna Be” scene in School Daze, Spike Lee purposely gave the light skin actresses preferential treatment over the dark skin actresses to precipitate the tension. Was there a similar situation on the set of this movie?

Jacob: We had honey wagons. She didn’t give us big star trailers. She didn’t treat anyone like that. She made us get these little bitty wagons to force us to come out and talk to each other. She kept the guys playing the cops separate. Even at the hotel, we were separated.

Jason: The hotel we stayed at used to be a jail. The common areas of the place was like sitting in a jail. After awhile, the guys that played the cops couldn’t take it anymore. She didn’t want us hanging together and developing a camaraderie, but after a while they couldn’t take it because they knew how we must feel. After they started feeling like that with us, it got to the point where they were like, “Look, I don’t know what you all are doing after work, but let’s hang out or something.”

Jacob: I think Will (Poulter, who plays a dirty cop) had sent me a DM on Twitter that I initially didn’t see. He asked me if I saw it and urged me to go check it. Basically it said, “I just wanna come to y’all because I think we should all hang out and do something. When the time comes to prepare to shoot, we can separate, but I feel like in this moment we need to come together and have the best relationship possible.” I think that helped the chemistry on set, because when you have what is essentially a total stranger just throwing you around, it can go another way quick!

Algee: The love we had off screen kind of helped make the hard moments on screen a bit easier to get through.

Jacob Lattimore

Jason, how did you personally get yourself mentally prepared going into the shoot?

Jason: I was really focused on the climate in Detroit at the time. If you pay close attention, they have a serious undertone of what was going on at the Algiers Motel, where they don’t trust the police as Black men. Between that and my character (Carl Cooper) sort of being that spark…you know how Motown’s music brought happiness and joy to people? He was that. He was that face of Detroit, like, “This is what we like. This is how it is here.” He was a ladies man comfortable in his own skin.

So I basically blocked out everything else. That way, when I gotta watch the news, I could strictly get in my feels because I’m not out here rioting and doing all that crazy stuff. I’m trying to enjoy my life. It was weird to wrap my head around, but knowing that Detroit has so much life, this has to be every bit of Carl Cooper.

Because the scenes were so intense, Algee and Jacob, how did you guys manage to come down off the emotional rollercoaster of what you were portraying?

Jacob: It still sticks with me a little bit even now. It just does. But I think it’s important that you just kind of keep living and try to get a perspective on what you’re feeling and why. But every time I talk about it now, it still sort of puts me in a place.

We were recently in Detroit and a friend of ours was shooting a video that he wanted us in and in the video he wanted to have us against the wall to kind of re-enact that scene. As soon as we put our hands on the wall to begin filming the video, we all just got into this really sad mood because it all came back to us – because that was one of the first scenes of the movie that we shot.

The first two weeks of filming we went straight to the climax, so that was pretty intense. And when we’re shooting this video for our friend, as soon as we put our hands on the wall, I looked at Algee and we all had this feeling of “Whoa, here we go again.”

Algee: I’m not gonna lie. It was hard for me to decompress. Even after shooting wrapped. Like Jacob said, even now it’s hard because I had to take myself to some dark places to do that. I’ve never been through the extreme that my character Larry went through.

Don’t get me wrong. I know how it feels to be a Black man in America. I know how it feels to be riding down the street and feel a certain way when you see a police officer. I know what it feels like to be talked down to. I know what it feels like to be looked at a certain way. But I’ve never experienced what Larry did, so I had to take myself to places thinking about family in ways that I didn’t want to see them. Just really messed up things.

But that stuff does stick with you and I feel like that’s when the importance of having a spiritual anchor comes in. And having people like these brothers around. We were praying before a lot of those scenes because we knew the weight of it. I think that was our way of decompressing and just having that camaraderie going after some really tough scenes. It was like, “We gotta go get something to eat, bro!”

Jason Mitchell

Algee, were the courtroom scenes any easier or less intense to shoot than the motel scenes?

Algee: Shout out to Malcolm David Kelley (Michael Clark) and Peyton Alex Smith (Lee) because it was TENSE in that courtroom! It was a little less hard, but still hard nonetheless, because in my mind I’m thinking about the real characters that had to go through this. I was in that courtroom trying to fight back tears. Overall though, my mindset was pretty much the same throughout the whole movie. It was all pretty hard.

Even just watching it to prepare for this interview, I had to decompress afterwards, so I can only imagine what it was like for you guys shooting it and having to endure that intensity for weeks.

Jason: When it comes to the decompression of it, it’s important to do what you did. That’s to accept the information the way you process it, because everyone is going to process it differently.

But what we don’t want to happen is for people to leave out of the theaters with their fists balled up – because we’re not hopeless anymore. We’re not hopeless as a people. We’re not hopeless as a country. We’re the strongest country in the world. It’ll just take discipline and us knowing our past to focus on our future.

The decompression process is a good process. It’s necessary. But at the same time, we want people to be able to come together. I just want everyone to know that we aren’t trying to force anybody to feel one way. There’s no one way to feel about this. We’re just simply giving you the facts and letting you process it.

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