In “Detroit,” Kathryn Bigelow chronicles the harrowing circumstances surrounding the Algiers Motel incident in which three innocent black men were killed, allegedly by a group of young white police officers. It’s a story fraught with contention, and Bigelow brought controversy of her own. As Variety’s recent cover story asked: “How could Bigelow — a white woman raised just ouside San Franicsco by middle-class parents and educated at Columbia University — understand and illuminate that kind of raw experience?”
In a recent interview with IndieWire, “Detroit” star John Boyega jumped to her defense — while also acknowledging that initially she wasn’t the director he’d envision telling this story. “I was shocked, actually,” he said.
Boyega acknowledged that there could be “detachment” involved in a white director handling the story, “which can sometimes cause controversy.” However, that lingering possibility led the actor to his own conclusions about why Bigelow was the right fit for the material.
“I just was like, ‘How does she come to that point where she was like, ‘I’m going to make this?'” said Boyega, who plays the security guard Melvin Dismukes, a shell-shocked witness to the motel events. “And I was glad that she did.”
As has become standard process for Bigelow and Boal, their research into the events they dramatize was prodigious. For Boyega, that made the difference. “I know that her research process was very, very long, because we had to catch up with her,” the actor said. “Everybody had to learn in a sense, and that was the connecting factor between all of us. We all didn’t know all the details — I knew about the uprising in Detroit, I didn’t know about [the Algiers Motel]. We all had to get there.”
While Boyega admitted initial trepidation at the prospect of Bigelow helming such a sensitive and important story, the actor said she alleviated his worries early on, when he realized how much the filmmaker knew about the material.
“When we were auditioning, I got much more questions than I normally do at an audition,” he said. “The questions were like, ‘How do you feel in this situation? What are the natural turns? Okay, go with that. Okay, flow with this.’ She was just so collaborative, and I think that in itself is the key to sometimes tapping into a perspective or a culture that is different from yours.”
Bigelow herself has been open about her own stance on the issue. In the Variety interview, she recalled her initial thoughts on the project. “I thought, ‘Am I the perfect person to tell this story? No.’ However, I’m able to tell this story, and it’s been 50 years since it’s been told.”
While “Detroit” chronicles the 1967 riots that paralyzed the city and laid bare years of racial discord, the majority of the film zeroes in on what unfolded at the Algiers on the third night of the disturbance. While shooting those tense scenes, Boyega said, Bigelow showed “the ability to listen, but at the same time, make creative decisions. Collaborate.”
Bigelow’s inclusive approach carried over to the rest of the production, and Boyega credits that process for building the appropriate environment for actors to succeed in telling such a wrenching story.
“For me, if you are serious about this and if you are approaching this with respect and integrity, you’ll be willing to listen, you’ll have the right people around you, and also you will give the actors — especially the black actors on set — the best opportunity to portray these characters,” Boyega said. “She did all of that. She approached it with respect, she had integrity. She was open to different ideas.”
“Detroit” is currently in limited release, it will expand nationally on Friday, August 4.