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Actor Algee Smith on truth and empathy in Kathryn Bigelow's 'Detroit'

by Darby Maloney and Paola Mardo | The Frame

Algee Smith in "Detroit." Francois Duhamel

For his audition for the film "Detroit," Algee Smith had to think fast and react quickly.

Director Kathryn Bigelow brought Smith and several other actors into a room. They were auditioning for a role as a singer and she asked them to improvise a crucial scene. Smith describes the experience:

[Kathryn's] like, OK guys, I just want you to make up a song on the spot and then there's going to be a police officer that comes in. He's going to throw you up against the wall. And you just have to react. And we were just like, OK! ... I feel like that really solidified characters in that one audition.

"Detroit" takes place during the summer of 1967, when three young African-American men were murdered at the Algiers Motel by white police officers. Smith plays the real-life singer Larry Reed, a member of the soul group The Dramatics, and a survivor of the incident.

Trailer

The script was written by Mark Boal, who worked with Bigelow on "Zero Dark Thirty" and "The Hurt Locker."

When Smith stopped by The Frame, he talked about what it was like to work with Bigelow and Boal, who are both white, to tell this story. Smith says he and his fellow actors talked about it on set.

The only thing that we were worried about was just making sure that ... Kathryn didn't try to act like she knew everything that was going on. And the amazing thing is she didn't try that. She brought us in and said, I trust you guys with knowing this. I'm not going to act like I know it. So I just want to be the person to push this story. But I want you guys to tell this story. So I feel like that was the amazing part. 

Will Poulter and director Kathryn Bigelow on the set of "Detroit."
Will Poulter and director Kathryn Bigelow on the set of "Detroit." Francois Duhamel

Smith also attributes Bigelow's previous work as a testament to her abilities as a storyteller, citing works such as "Point Break" and "Zero Dark Thirty," and "The Hurt Locker," which garnered six Academy Awards including best picture and best director.

She gets as close to the facts of telling a story as she can and she holds no punches. ... I feel like with that type of storytelling and filmmaker, it doesn't matter who tells this story as long as they can do that — as long as they can paint this picture and get the details from the actual people and paint it a certain way and make it look good and make you feel like you're there. I don't think it matters whether she's white, black or whatever.

Algee Smith in "Detroit."
Algee Smith in "Detroit." TT for Annapurna Pictures

Smith acknowledges the difficulty of putting himself, as a black man, into the very difficult situations of the film. But he says opening his mind and letting go helped him understand what the real-life people involved in the Algiers Motel incident went through:

I just had to let go and say, This is not about me. I don't even fully understand the actual weight of what these actual people went through. But I do understand empathy. I do understand, I see why they did this, I know what caused this, because I feel that in my heart too. Just being a black man, I know what it feels like to get talked down to, to get harassed, to be looked at a certain way. And so I just had to let go of myself and realize ... I'm a vessel. And that's all that I am here [to do] — to just be a vessel for these people.

Will Poulter in "Detroit."
Will Poulter in "Detroit." Francois Duhamel

Smith said what helped his performance was working with actors such as Will Poulter, who plays a police officer named Krause.

After every take he was checking on me and making sure we were all good, [saying], Am I doing too much? Just let me know when to stop. But I told him, Sometimes, yeah, you're doing a little too much. But I told him he has to go to those extremes to be able to tell this story and show people that's what it really was — and still is in some cases. So all of me was having to put myself in those shoes and really feel those words and think that they were real to me.

Will Poulter and Anthony Mackie in "Detroit."
Will Poulter and Anthony Mackie in "Detroit." TT for Annapurna Pictures

Smith says despite the traumatic nature of the scenes, Bigelow was able to create a safe space for the actors.

I don't know how Kathryn did it. She created this environment and she didn't direct us. That's one thing she didn't do, she didn't say, I need this from you, or, Turn around like this. She just said, This is your playground. You find it. You do what actually feels real to you and I'll just be here to catch any way you want to turn.

John Boyega in "Detroit."
John Boyega in "Detroit." TT for Annapurna Pictures

Smith says there was no camera blocking or marks for the actors, and the entire set was lit so they could step anywhere they felt they needed to. The open set helped him to be free with his character.

Another important factor for Smith's performance was being kept in the dark about certain aspects about the future of his character and the others who were confronted by the police. This gave him a chance to react to things in an authentic way.

I think it was important for Kathryn to keep me in the unknown because these actual people didn't know what was going to happen to them either. ... She said, These guys didn't know what would happen to five seconds later or five minutes later or an hour later or tomorrow. They didn't even think that they would make it to tomorrow.

She wanted to keep me in that same mind set of not knowing anything. I didn't know what Will [Poulter] was going to say to me. Everything that he was saying I was hearing for the first time. And so I'm just really reacting in real time.

Though the film portrays a difficult subject, Smith believes it shines a light on important, present realities faced by the black community, and including the families of the victims of the Algiers Motel incident, who received a mere $5,000 payout while the police officers were acquitted of the murders.

The truth of this story is that, first of all, systematic racism is definitely alive. Police brutality is definitely still very alive and active. This story is shining a light on that. This story is a call for justice ... [actor] Anthony Mackie has said it: We have to grow up and realize that we're all human beings. And that just is what it is and we have to co-exist.

Grow

Smith hopes that besides empathy and education, the film can be something that Larry Reed can be proud of. Smith portrays Reed in the film and the two teamed up on a song for the film titled "Grow."

I hope when Larry watches this film that he agrees with the truth that's being displayed in here. And that he can say that happened. And that he can approve of, not my performance of him, but my emotion and how he was feeling.

John Horn with Algee Smith who stars in the film "Detroit."
John Horn with Algee Smith who stars in the film "Detroit." KPCC

To hear the full interview with Algee Smith, click on the player above.

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