Kathryn Bigelow's 'Detroit' Revisits An American Tragedy: The Algiers Motel Incident

Jul 22, 2017

The Detroit riots began 50 years ago Sunday, after a police raid on an unlicensed, after-hours club. They lasted five days, and by the time they stopped, 43 people were dead, hundreds were injured, thousands had been arrested and entire neighborhoods had burned to the ground.

The new film Detroit depicts the beginning of the riots and one of their most horrifying events: the Algiers Motel incident, in which three young black men were killed (some would say executed) by white police officers.

Academy Award-winning filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow directed Detroit. She says at first the film introduces a lot of characters, "and little by little it winnows down to a particular character played by Algee Smith: Larry Reed. And the tragedy of these events unfold with him, and it's a very emotional roller coaster ride that you take with this character." (Reed is based on an up-and-coming Motown singer, also named Larry Reed, who survived the carnage.)

Actor Algee Smith is from Saginaw, Mich., not far from Detroit. He says he didn't know about the riots when he was growing up, and learning about what happened, "changes a lot."

"I would say it puts more fuel to the fire of my personal mission as a human being to do something about it, and as a black man to do something about it. "


Interview Highlights

On what drew Bigelow to the Algiers Motel story

Bigelow: I think predominantly it was an opportunity to telescope this giant canvas of the uprisings down to a particular crime event that [was] first presented to me ... right around the Ferguson, Mo., incident. And so I was kind of really emotionally moved by that. And felt that this story was an American tragedy that was important enough to be told.

On what drew Smith to Detroit

Smith: First of all, it was just Kathryn's name alone and the brilliance and the professionalism that came with that. When I first went to the audition, we didn't have the official script that we were reading — but it was the essence of those lines that me and [casting director] Vicky Thomas were going back and forth with, and I think from that day I was just drawn to the whole project.

On how Smith approached the character of Larry Reed

Smith: I was trying not to think a lot, and I feel like that's what helped. Kathryn specifically put us in a place where we were unprepared, and I feel like that helped us give authentic reactions in those scenes and not think about it too much. ... When we got there and we knew what we were doing that day, then I just tried to sit in that feeling.

On whether Smith was able to put himself in Reed's shoes

Smith: With all due respect to Larry, I don't think I can put myself in that place. That's a place where no human being would want to put themselves in. I tried to get as close as I could on set ... just to try to get a glimpse of what he was actually maybe feeling. But I could never feel that way.

On the effect Bigelow hopes the film will have

Bigelow: These events seem to recur — this is a situation that was 50 years ago, yet it feels very much like it's today. And I think, you know, you look at South Africa, where there's truth and reconciliation, and here I feel like there's not enough conversation about race. And so I think the film has the potential to provide an opportunity to engage in that dialogue. ... I can only hope that there's an urgency and a necessity for it. ... There's no other way for a healing process to begin. ...

The world has kind of handed me a kind of microphone, not unlike yourself, and I feel like there's a responsibility that comes with that. ... And if I can somehow use this medium, the medium of film, to propel a conversation forward — you know, the purpose of art is to agitate for change. I've always believed that and I still do.

Denise Guerra, Dustin DeSoto and Stacey Samuel produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm on Woodward Avenue in Detroit on the site of what used to be the Algiers Motel. It's gone now. It's a park. But this was the scene of a notorious incident from a week that saw too many of them. A group of white police officers, wrongly believing they'd been fired on by a sniper, savagely beat a group of young black men and two young white women who'd been staying there.

To this day, it isn't clear how many young men were beaten. Some accounts say 11, some say nine, some say seven. But what is clear is that three of those men were killed in a manner that shocks the conscience, and yet, those events, like the Algiers Motel, have largely been erased from history and memory. Now, a new movie from Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow takes us back to that terrifying night in 1967. It's called "Detroit."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DETROIT")

JOHN BOYEGA: (As Dismukes) I was working security by Wisconsin. And on Tuesday night...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN SHOTS)

BOYEGA: (As Dismukes) ...We heard gunfire coming from the area near the Algiers. Police was there. There was a lot of shooting. When I went in there, three kids had been killed.

MARTIN: You know Kathryn Bigelow previous work, "Zero Dark Thirty" and "The Hurt Locker," that earned her an Academy Award for best director. Also joining us is one of the stars of the film, Algee Smith. He plays Larry Reed, an up-and-coming Motown singer who survived the carnage. When we talked a few days ago, I started by asking Kathryn Bigelow why she wanted to make this film.

KATHRYN BIGELOW: I think predominantly it was an opportunity to telescope this giant canvas of the uprisings down to a particular crime event that first presented to me was right around the Ferguson, Mo., incident. And so I felt that the story was an American tragedy that was important enough to be told.

MARTIN: I remember seeing the interview you did with "60 Minutes" right around the time that "The Hurt Locker" came out, but you said that you were interested in provocative characters who find themselves in extreme situations. I mean, in this film, whose point of view do you want us to take?

BIGELOW: Well, I think what's interesting about the way the story unfolds is it introduces you to a lot of characters. And little by little, it winnows down to a particular character played by Algee Smith, Larry Reed. And the sort of tragedy of these events unfold with him. And it's a very emotional roller coaster ride that you take with this character.

MARTIN: Well, that is certainly true. I want to talk about that in a minute. But Algee, let me turn to you now. I think people may remember you from when you played a member of New Edition in BET's miniseries. And a little different story. I mean, there are similarities. Here's a crooner. Here's somebody who's on the rise who wants to sort of make it. It's a very different story. I'm wondering what attracted you to this project. What made you want to do it?

ALGEE SMITH: First of all, it was just Kathryn's name alone and the brilliance and the professionalism that came with that. So when I first went to the audition, we didn't have the official script that we were reading, but it was a essence of those lines that me and I mean Vicki Thomas (ph) were going back and forth with. And I think from that day, I was just drawn to the whole project.

MARTIN: Talk to me a little bit more about what you thought about as you decided how to play this character who's experiencing something that you don't even want to think about this happening, let alone experience it.

SMITH: You know, that's the interesting part about it. I didn't - I was trying not to think a lot. And I feel like that that's what helped. Kathryn specifically put us in a place where we didn't - we were unprepared. And I feel like that helped us just be authentically - just give authentic reactions in those scenes and not think about it too much. And so I didn't try to think about it. I just - when we got there and we knew what we were doing that day, then I just tried sit in that - feeling that it was for that scene.

MARTIN: So, Kathryn Bigelow, back to you. I mean, you know, one of the signatures of your work is that you're capturing violent situations, situations that most of us don't want to be in and kind of forcing us to experience some of what those people are going through. And I have to tell you, for a lot of people, this was a brutal experience. When we saw the film, there were people sobbing in the bathroom after it was over. And I'm wondering, is that what you were hoping for? I mean, what are you hoping people will think about or feel after they experience this film?

BIGELOW: Well, there's no question that there's a heightened emotionality attached to it and I would say heightened emotionality attached to that event and the fact that these events seem to recur. This is a situation that was 50 years ago, yet it feels very much like it's today. And here, I feel like there's not enough conversation about race. And so I think the film has the potential to provide an opportunity to engage in that dialogue.

MARTIN: Algee, I know that you grew up in Saginaw - right? - which is about 90 minutes away. I heard you say in an interview that you never heard anything about the uprising or the riots when you were growing up. Is that true? Nobody talked about it?

SMITH: I didn't know about the Algiers Motel specifically, but I didn't know - I didn't even know a lot of detail about the riots, so.

MARTIN: Why do you think that is?

SMITH: I don't know. I don't know. I'm not sure. Maybe it's - I'm really not sure. That's a good question. But I think that's the importance of this film is to educate because I didn't know, and so my little brothers and my little sister don't know. And if I didn't know for that long, it's like they can catch it early now.

MARTIN: You know, one of the things I was intrigued by is that, gosh, your character seemed, like, such a happy guy. And to see that taken away from him is heartbreaking. Does that make sense?

SMITH: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

MARTIN: I mean, here's a person who just loves his music and just wants to perform and wants to make people happy. And to see that taken away from him by what he saw and experiences is really hard. It's really painful. And I'm wondering for you, as a performer, as a person who loves to sing as well as to act, and I'm just wondering, can you put yourself in Larry Reed's place?

SMITH: Yeah. With all due respect to Larry, I don't think I can put myself in that place. That's a place where no human being would want to put themselves in. I tried to get as close as I could on set with taking myself to certain places with my personal life just to try to get a glimpse of what he was actually maybe feeling, but I could never feel that way.

MARTIN: Kathryn Bigelow, final thought for you. We talked about this earlier. I mean, the events that you describe in this film took place 50 years ago, but in some ways, they're very real and very much a part of our conversation, you know, at the moment. The whole question of how certain people are treated by the authorities and what happens when mistreatment comes to light. And I'm wondering whether - do you think people are ready to have this conversation right now?

BIGELOW: I can only hope that there is an urgency and a necessity for it and that there's no other way for a healing process to begin. And, you know, if not now, when? I suppose that's what I would ask.

MARTIN: That was Kathryn Bigelow and Algee Smith. They are respectively director and star of the new movie "Detroit." It premieres officially in Detroit's famous Fox Theatre this Tuesday and nationwide August 4. Kathryn Bigelow, Algee Smith, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

BIGELOW: Thank you.

SMITH: Thank you so much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.