What we mean when we talk about ‘Detroit’

click to enlarge Police brutality during a 1967 riot is the subject of Detroit. - Photo: Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures
Photo: Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures
Police brutality during a 1967 riot is the subject of Detroit.

“A real conversation starter” is one of the phrases likely to be used in discussions of Detroit, the new feature from director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, who previously collaborated on The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. It opens here Friday. In fact, many viewers will go into Detroit with heightened expectations, thanks to the procedural-like approach of Zero Dark Thirty, which examined the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. 

I, for one, wanted Bigelow and Boal to take a similar approach to the timely horror of urban policing, using the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Detroit riots as the starting point for a bracing exposé on how the political and social unrest of the 1960s triggered escalating confrontations. Looking back at it now might allow us to recognize the same pitfalls today.

During the recent junket screening of Detroit in Detroit, I found myself wandering down the dark streets of recent American history, checking off the 25-year marker of the 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the Rodney King trial and remembering the 2001 civil unrest in Cincinnati sparked by the police shooting of Timothy Thomas. The day before heading to Detroit, I attended the latest rally at Fountain Square for Sam DuBose.

When we mention starting a conversation on race relations or urban policing, there is something disingenuous in the claim. It assumes starting fresh, as if none of these past situations are linked together to form a chain of events that, for those oppressed and terrorized by these deadly encounters with authority figures, has never been satisfactorily settled. In truth, this discussion should go back to the founding of the nation.

Bigelow’s film concentrates on the second night of rioting in Detroit, at the Algiers Motel, when reports of sniper fire led the Detroit Police Department, the Michigan State Police, the Michigan Army National Guard and a local private security guard to storm the Algiers and subject a group of black men and white women to a “death game” in pursuit of a confession. At night’s end, three unarmed young men were dead and several others were victims of brutal and senseless beatings.

During my interviews with cast members, I asked about their conversations with Bigelow concerning playing their characters. One of the most fascinating discussions came with Will Poulter, the British-born young actor portraying Philip Krauss, the police officer who instigates the vicious and highly illegal interrogation and coerces his fellow officers to follow his lead. In truth, the Krauss character is not based on one specific individual; rather, he reflects the racist behavior of the officers involved and is based on first-hand accounts and testimony. 

That portrayal was a harrowing challenge that Poulter did not take lightly. I asked him about the behind-the-scenes conversations during the filming to ascertain what the atmosphere was like as they attempted to recreate such tense exchanges. He spoke of the difficulty, since he had such respect for the actors playing Krauss’ victims. 

“It was incredibly difficult to convince yourself to hate another person based on such a fictitious mythological basis, which I think all racism is based on,” he said. “It’s even harder when you have genuine love and respect for the person playing the (victimized) character. So, you have to embrace (Krauss’) ignorance and block out any of your instincts. For the recipients of the abuse, I imagine, it was a great deal harder. As trying as it was for me, it must have been 10 times harder for the individuals on the other end of what I was doing.”

Conversations on the set “were informed by a sense of responsibility and a great deal of importance,” Poulter said. “And the only way for us to do it was to do it as a group, building genuine relationships of trust and friendship. Then, we could go to the extremes we went to and confidently portray our characters without losing sight that we were all on the same side. We were all doing this for the same cause.” 

For us who see Detroit and are prompted to talk about race in America, that’s good because we can never stop talking about it. But it is what comes next that might matter even more. 

CONTACT TT STERN-ENZI: [email protected]

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