‘Detroit’ cast talk characters, the city’s past

Melody Baetens, The Detroit News


Actor and Saginaw native Algee Smith, left, and director Kathryn Bigelow chat after the press conference Monday at the Foundation hotel in Detroit.

After portraying people who were living and visiting Detroit during the 1967 rebellion, the stars of the “Detroit” are in town this week to promote the film and visit points of interest ahead of Tuesday’s world premiere at the Fox Theatre.

The film’s stars — along with director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal — sat down to chat with members of the media Monday afternoon at the Detroit Foundation Hotel.

While researching the film, Boal said he learned that a lot of people didn’t know what happened between civilians and the Detroit Police at the Algiers Hotel on June 25-26, 1967. The intense and gruesome events are the main focus of the film, which opens at two theaters locally Friday and nationwide Aug. 4.

“I lot of people that didn’t live through it don’t know this story and even people from Detroit, even people that went to high school here,” Boal said. “If that’s true in Detroit, then it’s certainly true nationally. This story had been forgotten.

“When you think about (1967) culturally, usually the cultural representations are like the summer of love, and the hippie, you know, movement and the hippie exploration and the hippie rebellion,” he said. “Meanwhile, you have this major civil strife and strife in America’s urban centers going on the same summer and that’s just not part of our overall cultural awareness, so I think that’s where I come from on it.”

Actor Ben O’Toole portrays Flynn in “Detroit,” which is based on the Algiers Motel Incident.

Boal defended the film against the mindset that the “Detroit” — which heavily covers the negative relationship between African-Americans and the mostly white Detroit Police force — casts a negative light on a city that is trying to move forward.

“I hope that movie becomes a platform for Detroit to talk about what’s happening now in a positive and in an negative as far as the unequalness of ... (it’s) great that you got some condos built, but there’s still a lot of people that need help.”

The young cast discussed race relations today versus how they were in the 1960s.

Actor Ephraim Sykes plays Jimmy, a fictional member of The Dramatics, a real-life Detroit singing group, in the emotional movie. He also was cast in the role of George Eacker in the Tony-winning play “Hamilton” on Broadway.

“One thing about Detroit and Motown, Motown was able to sort of heal a wounded nation — a very, very divided nation — just with the sound of the music. People shut their eyes and danced together for the first time in our nation’s history,” said cast member Ephraim Sykes, who portrayed Jimmy, a fictional member of The Dramatics. He also was cast in the role of George Eacker in Tony-winner “Hamilton” on Broadway.

“Right now we’re able to do that with music still, but in the same way I’m not gonna shut my eyes no more. I’m going sing and do my music, but I’m also going to actually fight for legislation. I’m going to encourage my young brothers and sisters (to find out) when is your city council vote going up ... things that we don’t know that I think have allowed us to, as a country, continue to divide and keep a veil over our eyes. That’s the reason systematic racism continues.”

Saginaw’s Algee Smith, who portrayed real-life Detroiter Larry Cleveland Reed, said he doesn’t see much difference between he and his character, a founding member of the vocal group the Dramatics who survived the incident at the Algiers Hotel.

“I don’t feel like I’m different from my character in any way,” Smith said. “I’m a young black man. I’m a singer. To be honest, that can happen to me if I walk outside today and I just don’t know it ... that can happen any day I walk outside. So to be honest, there is no separation from me and Larry.

“I feel like Larry is me in 50 years.”

Actor John Boyega (Finn in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) also portrayed a real, living person involved in the Algiers Motel incident, security guard Melvin Dismukes, who served as a consultant on the film.

London-born actor Boyega said he can’t relate as much to Dismukes, who left the store he was guarding to assist police and the National Guard with a possible shooter at the hotel.

“Personally for me, I’m not trying leave the grocery store. I don’t understand why he even left,” Boyega said. “I think when we watch a film ... we like to look at other people’s situation from a position of comfort, and what this role required me to do was have an open mind.”

A few actors mentioned Detroit’s police department then and now, and how far it has come from being majority white to the diverse force it is today.

Anthony Mackie, left, Will Poulter, and Laz Alonso share a laugh at the Monday press conference. Poulter, a British actor, convincingly portrayed racist police officer Philip Krauss, an amalgam of different Detroit officers involved in the Algiers incident.

“When taking on this role, I think it was important to contextualize each of our characters and what our contribution was by learning about how the rebellion came about and the state that Detroit was in at that time,” said Will Poulter, also a British actor who convincingly portrayed racist police officer Philip Krauss. His character was based an amalgam of different Detroit officers involved in the Algiers incident, not any one person.

Poulter said the officers who that made up his character’s profile were “all racist.”

“It’s an unfortunate combination that a racist might be a police officer and that’s something that we simply can’t allow for,” Poulter said.

Poulter, who met Detroit Police Chief James Craig this week, said the response from Detroit Police officers to the movie has been “phenomenal.”

“As I understand it, not only were they receptive to the film, but they’re looking into the film being kind of mandatory viewing for police officers, so that it informs them about the past and that it hopefully will add to the progression that they’re already experiencing,” Poulter said.

Actors Ephraim Sykes, left, Nathan Davis Jr., Joseph Davis Jones, Peyton Alex Smith and John Boyega display some of the 400 food bags they packed at the Gleaners Food Bank that will be distributed to needy families.

Besides meeting with Detroit Police, the actors also visited Gleaners Food Bank, the Motown Museum, American Coney Island and Detroit Water Ice Factory on Sunday and Monday.

“My experience with Detroit was so wonderful, (considering) we were shooting this dark, dark, dark movie,” said Joseph David-Jones, who played one of the fictional Dramatics in “Detroit.”

“Coming back here and going to (American) Coney Island and seeing the people and seeing how excited they were about this film and how excited they were about this story being told really just invigorated me.”


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Twitter: @melodybaetens



World premiere Tuesday at the Fox Theatre.

Opens Friday at Bel Air Luxury Cinema and AMC Star John R

Nationwide release Aug. 4