Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit is more relevant now than ever.
On the surface, Detroit seemed like it was once synonymous with the American Dream. Before the 1970s economic decline and the bankruptcy years of the 2010s, Detroit was known for its sprawling middle-class, well-paying jobs, and unionized working conditions. Thanks to its extensive job availability, Detroit was the fifth largest city in the United States during the 1950s, with only New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia surpassing its population. But while the city may have looked like a job haven for most, it was a racial nightmare for others.
Even during its most prosperous years during the first half of the 20th century, Detroit still had a deeply rooted issue with race. Competition for jobs became the source for many of these disputes. So bad was the racial division that Detroit and its surrounding areas became one of the largest KKK strongholds during its revival in the early 20th century. So bad was the problem that nearly 25,000 workers walked off the assembly line during World War II armament when three African American men were promoted. This sparked the 1943 riots that led to 34 deaths (25 of whom were African American) and about 600 injured people (of which 75% were African American).
And it seems the issue never did improve as the horrendous riot of 1943 was quickly overshadowed by the 1967 riots which became up until then, the second worst riot any American city had ever seen. In the balmy summer of love, riots erupted leaving 43 dead, 1,189 injured, 7,200 arrested, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. In a period that lasted over a staggering 5 days, Detroit had been reduced to a war zone with national guard troops and two military airborne divisions being called in to quell the violence. It was a moment in which America was put face-to-face with its fractious racial relationships–a moment that has become increasingly more relevant in today’s continuously tumultuous racial divisions.
Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty), who often examines the sociopolitical strife that public policy can have on a situation, has chosen the oft-looked over riots as a conduit to examine America’s turbulent race relations. Written by frequent collaborator Mark Boal, Detroit looks to be a powerful look into how much America has come in its racial relations and yet, how much there is left to do. The Knockturnal‘s Chasity Saunders sat down with Detroit stars Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton), Nathan Davis Jr. (Tween Fest) and Leon Thomas (Satisfaction) to talk about their time working on the film, their time working with the legendary director and the emotionality of it all. Check out what she had to say below.
So first of all, you guys all brought your A game to this film. Congratulations.
Group: Thank you. Thanks a lot.
Jason, scene stealer much? I mean this all started over a starter pistol, but I mean-
Jason Mitchell: Yeah.
The line where you say, “Being black is almost like having a gun pointed at your face”.
Jason Mitchell: Yeah
It keeps ringing through my head, so just talk a little bit about character development and getting ready to play such powerful roles.
Jason Mitchell: Well, of course, we had to do our research on Detroit, the climate, the time and all these things that were happening but Carl was such a lovable person. You know that everybody has a piece of that in themselves. I think it was important to not only set this world up to have such an innocence in it but to show that everybody wasn’t even on that level. And everybody just wants to be treated equal. So, it was kind of funny that Carl would be like, “What if you were black today?”
And you brought a lightheartedness to the film. I think it was the only time in the movie where I actually smiled. You guys really have to go to some deep places and for you playing Aubrey, just really the bravery that it took to take on this role. What was it like collaborating with Kathryn Bigelow? What was it like having to really dig deep for this role?
Nathan Davis Jr: Well, Kathryn had my back. This role was devastating. It was traumatizing. It was really, really like hard for me. I had to really dig deep into believing, “You know, this is a real person. This story is a real story.” So, I was bawling my eyes out on and off set. Kathryn was always there for me, asking, “Are you okay? Can we cut? Maybe you need some water?” So, she was there to help me, and give me a smile. I’d say “Oh, thank you Kathryn. I really appreciate that.” And then, I had to draw right back in.
For you Leon, we all know you from different projects you’ve worked on before. You’re also an amazing musician and songwriter. What was the process like getting a chance to play one of the iconic Dramatics? I see you cut your hair. I mean, you went all the way in with this role. Could you talk about that?
Leon Thomas: It was awesome. I really committed. I really committed for this process. Knowing that I was dealing with Kathryn Bigelow, I wanted to bring my A-game. We had to learn a lot of songs on set. It was the day-of a lot of the times. We were really focused on making sure that we kept it as authentic as we could with the kind of singing we were doing. We would try to steer from any Boyz to Men runs and keep it locked in with the climate and culture of that time. But I’m just thankful to be a part this storytelling experience. I feel like this is the kind of thing that can help inform people for years to come about something that’s truly been swept under the rug.
For sure. I mean, the tag line for the film is “It’s time we knew,” and you guys are definitely bringing that. So, why do you think as young African American men, as millennials, that young people—especially black men—should go out and see this film, Detroit?
Jason Mitchell: It’s because they don’t know. We did the film and didn’t know before it happened and I think it’s special to know where we came from, so we can realize the milestones because sometimes, we’ve got to stop and give ourselves a pat on the back. People want to be able to trust the police. People want to be able to trust their neighbors. People don’t want to have this black and white feud. People don’t want all this racism and segregation. So, I think knowing our history will help us figure out our future.
I was leaving my press screening and I was pulled over by the police, and I was like, “Oh my god. Oh my god.” I literally started praying, and all of the things I’d just seen while watching this film just came to me. Thankfully, they were absolutely amazing, let me just a warning, and I was like, “That was God and the Universe telling me that not all police are bad.” So, I just want to tell you guys you did a phenomenal job. I cannot wait for people to go out and see you guys in this film. You rocked it.
Group: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Check Detroit out when it hits theaters August 4.