John Boyega’s superwatt smile is conspicuously absent in his latest movie.
There’s very little to smile about in Detroit, the new Kathryn Bigelow film about an infamous but largely forgotten incident during the 1967 Detroit rebellion. Scores of people died over the course of five days but no event was more shocking than what happened at the Algiers Motel on the fourth day, in which three black teenagers were killed in the motel annex, after a National Guardsman reported hearing shots in the area. Across the street, security guard Melvin Dismukes, whom Boyega plays, overheard the same noise and headed to the motel that night.
But the young men, who were questioned and brutalized by Detroit police officers in the annex, were unarmed. According to screenwriter Mark Boal’s script, what the Guardsman heard was a starter pistol, not a sniper. Dismukes, who found himself in the crosshairs, ended up being charged with first-degree murder, alongside the white police officers who, according to the movie if not an official report, were responsible for the murders of Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), Aubrey Pollard (Nathan Davis Jr.), and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore).
While what occurred at the Algiers Motel is history, there are recent headlines that show how little the needle has moved when it comes to the impunity of a violent police force. For example, Detroit was filmed in the latter half of 2016, a year that saw 963 victims of deadly police violence in the US according to the Washington Post’s "Fatal Force" project. Of that number, the database counts 17 victims as black and unarmed.
During his interview with BuzzFeed News at the Crosby Street Hotel in New York, Boyega spoke briefly about Rashan Charles, the 20-year-old father who died in the hospital following interaction with police in East London last month. Police brutality spans continents; it is not strictly a US phenomenon, nor has it been relegated to the past. “A movie like this echoes with you because as a black person obviously you're going to have lines and connections,” Boyega said. “But at the same time, a new process begins after a movie like Detroit. It's a process of self-discovery, finding your place in all this. It's not only sparking us, the actors, but in everybody — regardless of race. And that's something that will warp into improvement.
“I want it to lead to some form of change, and I don't know how that's going to happen.”
"I plan to have some Nigerian babies sometime and it would be good for them to be in a world in which things are better."
After a recent screening of the film in the city it was set in, Boyega talked about that drive to affect and bring change with his Detroit costar Algee Smith, who plays Larry Reed, former lead singer of The Dramatics. Reed survived the night at the Algiers, but remained haunted by what he experienced and witnessed; he lived, but his previously mapped out future was irretrievably derailed. “We met people from Detroit, some of whom had connections to the past, [and] the still kind of young, optimistic guys who still feel like Detroit has had a chance,” said Boyega. “And Algee was just like, ‘Man, I know this is a movie and I know we're here to promote it. It's a great, important film.’ But, he goes, ‘I need to be a part of this, man. I need to do something and I just don't know what and I'm trying to figure that out.’ And I'm like, ‘Dude, I feel the same way.’”
For Boyega, working on Detroit brought him closer to his “purpose.” “You find that there's a strength in your voice and in your perspective. And you just want to learn more and do more and be more than you are, obviously for the greater good. You know, because I plan to have some Nigerian babies sometime” — he flashed that signature smile — “and it would be good for them to be in a world in which, you know, things are better, because it's real.”
Because there is no official account of what happened that long ago night at the Algiers Motel, it was up to Bigelow and Boal to conduct interviews with survivors and witnesses and build a narrative that fleshed out the details. The real Melvin Dismukes served as a consultant on the film, and Boyega first spoke to him on a conference call after he was cast last summer. He wanted to learn about Dismukes as an individual because, Boyega said, he “landed in that circumstance, the circumstance doesn't dictate who he is.” Boyega discovered that Dismukes was “an introvert, very soft-spoken, has good intention,” and in him, Boyega found echoes of his own father, back home in London.
“We didn't have enough time to put it in [the film] and establish, but [Melvin] was a great, great community man. He's a big community man. My dad is like that, so I understand that mentality,” said Boyega. “My dad is a minister so we would have loads of the congregation come to our house for counseling, sometimes at crazy hours in the morning. So I understand the kind of like, agape love for people, which is something that [Dismukes] had.”
Frustratingly, Dismukes’s community-minded principles are not well-established in Detroit. We are given only a couple of fleeting scenes, when he diffuses a situation between the police and a black boy frustrated by the officers’ way of speaking to him, and later, when he brings the white Guardsmen coffee as a gesture of goodwill and keeping the peace. The boy he ushers away from the police sneeringly calls him “uncle.” For many black people in the city, Dismukes’s proximity to the violence at the Algiers Motel left a sour taste. Boyega says he had to consider responses like this as also valid. “Those tables were just turned, not only for him, you know, being accused of first-degree murder, but from black folks too, who were just like, ‘You're an Uncle Tom, and you could have done something.’ And I had to understand that as well.”
Detroit offers a somewhat muddled narrative that perhaps does not linger in the places you want it to: the post-traumatic stress Reed apparently suffered afterward, or the aftermath of the trial on Dismukes’s life, for example — but it is also intensely claustrophobic, with a thread of simmering and raw violence that explodes every so often in shocking spikes. Unsurprisingly, reactions have been mixed, with some black viewers leaving screenings perturbed and triggered by the violence depicted. Danielle Young of The Root wrote: “It’s the equivalent of watching the Facebook Live video of Philando Castile taking his final breath ... for two hours.”
"We need to understand our people's pain. And that doesn't come with sugar and cupcakes. I'm sorry, it doesn't."
What does Boyega think about the people, like Young, who walked out of the cinema? He paused thoughtfully before answering. “Each to their own,” he said finally. “Like, it's not an easy process for some. But I think it's necessary.”
The filmmakers' motive was authenticity, Boyega said, and the goal is to get people to watch the film. “What they should know is that the intention is not to just sort of make you feel that way and for you to go home. Because think about it: There still is an element of business in this in which we want the movie to do well. We're not trying to make a movie that chases everybody away. But it has to be integral to what happened.”
In Boyega’s mind, the quest for equal civil rights and social justice that has reemerged in the public consciousness in the last few years, requires a hard look at the past. “We all want the same thing. But you, me, us, who weren't born back then, who are still trying to deal with the pains and sufferings of our ancestors and we're having to walk through life being aware of our blackness, we need to understand our people's pain. And that doesn't come with sugar and cupcakes. I'm sorry, it doesn't. It comes [out] of an element of us having to emotionally just go there for a few hours in a movie. … Whatever it takes to ignite that conversation is something that I find important and if someone does leave, it's each to their own.”
Ultimately, Boyega said, the film does require "a huge emotional payment from its audience," adding, "that's real life." "Sometimes we like to simplify issues so that it's easy for us to comprehend so that we don't have to worry about that on a day-to-day basis," he continued. "It's so easy to class this kind of issue as a kind of black versus white. That's not necessarily how simple it was, and Detroit goes into that. And I just feel like that in itself makes its appeal to everybody that is an adult in today's day and age where we have to get along.”