The Oscar winner’s ripped-from-the-headlines drama, which opens nationwide on Aug. 4, burrows into one of the most painful chapters in American history. It centers on the Detroit riots of 1967, a response to decades of racial oppression and economic marginalization that exploded during a scorching hot summer and enflamed the Motor City. 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? Should she even try?
“I thought, ‘Am I the perfect person to tell this story? No,’” says Bigelow. “However, I’m able to tell this story, and it’s been 50 years since it’s been told.”
Ultimately, Bigelow opted to put her clout as the most famous female filmmaker in the world on the line, and convinced Annapurna, an indie production company with big ambitions to become a full-fledged studio, to back the risky picture.
“Detroit,” which debuted in limited release on July 28, is set against the backdrop of the race riots — or rebellion, as it has been rechristened by some academics and activists — but it is specifically focused on the killings of three black men that took place during that time in a nearby run-down motel. Known, rather clinically, as the Algiers Motel incident, the murders have modern-day echoes, mirroring the shootings of Michael Brown, Dontre Hamilton, Freddie Gray and other recent racially charged incidents of police violence.
Shortly after midnight on July 25, 1967, Detroit police and National Guardsmen, responding to reports of a sniper in the area, savagely interrogated guests at the Algiers Motel, brutalizing them, threatening them with death and trampling over their civil liberties. By the time the evening was over, three of the men, all of them black, were dead, while nine others, seven black men and two white women, emerged severely beaten and scarred. They would never receive justice —the white police officers who were accused of murdering the black men would successfully plead self-defense.
Bigelow was familiar with the Detroit riots, but she hadn’t heard of the Algiers Motel killings until screenwriter Mark Boal pitched her on the idea of making a film. The pair previously collaborated on 2012’s “Zero Dark Thirty” and 2010’s best picture Oscar winner “The Hurt Locker,” where they developed an almost documentary-like approach to chronicling America’s recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bigelow says she learned of Boal’s script right after a grand jury declined to prosecute Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown. The ruling convinced her to move behind the camera again.
“With the events unfolding today, the story needed to see the light of day,” says Bigelow. “My hope is that a dialogue comes out of this film that can begin to humanize a situation that often feels very abstract.”
Algee Smith, a newcomer who plays the pivotal role of Larry Reed, an aspiring Motown singer whose life is upended by the killings, says Bigelow impressed him with her commitment to shining a light on police brutality.
“Here you have a white woman who’s telling this film about something that happened in the black community,” he says. “She feels so passionate about it. You have people in the black community who don’t even feel as passionate about it. But she said it gripped her heart and she couldn’t turn away from it.” All the same, Bigelow could face a backlash in the press and social media by those who question why the movie was directed and written by Caucasians.
Five decades after the murders in the Algiers, the intersection of race and criminal justice is still a flash point in American society, dividing us into Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter camps. The political polarization of the country has calcified these factions along racial and party lines. Sixty-five percent of blacks support the Black Lives Matter movement, while 12% oppose it, according to a 2016 poll by the Pew Research Center. In contrast, 40% of whites endorse Black Lives Matter; 28% are opposed. Roughly two-thirds of white Democrats express at least some support for the Black Lives Matter movement; only 20% of white Republicans back its goals.
That means that “Detroit” will be facing fierce headwinds as it tries to foster the kind of debate that Bigelow aims to inspire. Moreover, the film was conceived in a very different political environment from the one in which it is being released. President Barack Obama often used the shootings of young black men as moments to teach understanding, reminding Americans that Trayvon Martin could have been his son. His successor, Donald Trump, has stated he doesn’t understand the term “black lives matter” and has aligned himself fully with police, accusing their critics of inciting violence. The difference in approach could not be starker.
“It was certainly unanticipated,” Bigelow says in reference to Trump’s victory. “Film is a lumbering beast that doesn’t always move as nimbly as you want.”
In an interview with Variety at the Greenwich Hotel in Manhattan on a stiflingly hot July morning, Bigelow is unfailingly polite, softly apologizing for asking the staff to turn down the overhead jazz music so her words won’t be drowned out. She’s also somewhat tentative, pausing frequently between words, speaking in quasi-academic terms, deflecting more personal questions, all while maintaining a ramrod posture that would put the most seasoned yogi to shame.
By her own admission, selling a movie is not something that comes naturally to her. You can imagine she’d rather be filming in Middle East hot spots as she did for “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” or trying to catch the ultimate wave a la “Point Break.”
Of course, the last time Bigelow was beating the drum for one of her works, she became embroiled in a bruising political scandal. “Zero Dark Thirty,” which included sequences of CIA agents using enhanced interrogation techniques as they searched for Osama bin Laden, was slammed as pro-torture. Social critic Naomi Wolf went so far as to compare Bigelow to Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. Bigelow hit back at those claims, writing in the Los Angeles Times that “depiction is not endorsement.” At the same time, Republicans in the House and the Senate claimed that the Obama administration improperly provided Bigelow and Boal with classified information to create a more flattering portrait of their efforts to kill the terrorist leader. Their threats of a congressional investigation ultimately were dropped.
Given the outrage that greeted “Zero Dark Thirty,” Bigelow might be forgiven if she had choosen a romantic comedy as her follow-up. But she insists she’s not worried about popping up in op-ed pages and nightly news takedowns again.
“My own personal concerns are at the service of the importance to tell the story,” she says. “I’m compelled to make emotionally, socially and politically challenging pieces. That’s what intrigues me.”
With a $30 million budget, “Detroit” represents a bold bet for Annapurna, the indie studio backed by Megan Ellison, the daughter of billionaire Oracle founder Larry Ellison. The production company financed “Zero Dark Thirty,” along with critical favorites such as “The Master” and “American Hustle.” But those films were released by other studios. “Detroit” is the first picture Annapurna is rolling out itself through its newly launched in-house marketing and distribution arms. (Ellison, notoriously press adverse, declined multiple interview requests for this story.)
Instead of releasing the film at the height of Oscar season, when it might try to ride awards buzz to box office gold, Annapurna is bowing the movie in the summer as a counterprogramming move. It’s a time of year known for superhero pics and escapist fare, not thought-provoking dramas about race relations in America. Even the “Detroit” creative team seems skeptical about the film’s commercial prospects.
“It’s a tough movie,” admits Boal. “The movie is challenging to watch. We’re in a difficult spot in the world right now, and I’m hopeful that audiences will respond to the challenge that the movie poses and appreciate not being talked down to.”
In male-dominated Hollywood, Bigelow is the exception to the rule. She is the only female filmmaker ever to win a best director Oscar and one of only four women even to get a nomination. It’s not just a lack of awards attention; female filmmakers are given few chances to ply their craft. Last year women comprised just 7% of all directors working on the top 250-grossing films domestically, a 2% drop from 2015, according to San Diego State’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.
“It’s a travesty,” Bigelow says. “I feel like it’s trending in the right direction, but it’s painfully slow, and where’s that inequity coming from? That’s a big and complicated sociological question.”
“I’ve been so busy, but I want to,” she says, sheepishly hiding her head in her hand.
Bigelow herself has been approached about big-budget comic-book movies, and indeed, she says she has been offered major mainstream films. Former Sony chief Amy Pascal publicly stated that she urged her to shoot a Bond film. So far, at least, Bigelow’s not interested in taking the plunge.
“Those opportunities are out there, and I’m grateful,” the director says. “I’m just more drawn to a journalistic aspect of film. That opens up very specific avenues as opposed to more comforting avenues. It’s a responsibility I’m excited to pursue, whereas something that has less content is less compelling to me.”
In the end, Bigelow believes that her greatest contribution to the cause of promoting women behind the camera is the sheer fact that she’s working at a high level.
“I am, hopefully, making the impossible seem possible,” she says.
Her work has won her admirers and loyal collaborators. Anthony Mackie, who appeared in Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” and has a supporting part in “Detroit,” says the director thrives on bucking conventions.
“She loves to go against what people expect,” he says. “In her career, she hasn’t let her physical appearance, her race or her sexuality define the type of films she makes.”
Bigelow had been working for decades before she picked up an Oscar, but she was seen as more of an anomaly than an auteur. She was a female action director, bringing a certain kineticism to submarine thrillers (“K-19: The Widowmaker”), heist adventures (“Point Break”) and horror pics (“Near Dark”), genres that were typically the purview of male filmmakers.
“The Hurt Locker” — which won multiple Oscars, including best picture, director and original screenplay — catapulted her onto the A-list. The exploration of soldiers tasked with defusing bombs in Iraq put a human face on a conflict that had been shoved off the front pages. It also marked a shift in style, away from her glossier early work to a more verite approach to moviemaking. “The Hurt Locker,” with its constantly moving handheld camera, had a documentary-like intensity that galvanized Bigelow.
“It opened my eyes to a more journalistic style of filmmaking, and when I say that I mean informational,” she says. “It attempts to bring you, the viewer, to a place that you know very little about.”
That ambition is pushing Bigelow to pursue projects outside the film space. Last spring she debuted “The Protectors: Walk in the Ranger’s Shoes,” an eight-minute virtual reality documentary about the efforts of rangers in Garamba National Park, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to stop poachers from killing elephants for their ivory. She believes the medium could be used to tell more stories that encourage social and political activism, and she’s interested in using virtual reality to dramatize the issue of climate change.
“The purpose would be to create empathy for this problem,” she says. “That could move the needle.”
On a hot summer night in July 1967, Julie Hysell’s life changed forever.
The 18-year-old Ohio native was visiting Detroit with her friend, Karen Malloy, and was holed up in the Algiers Motel as the race riots raged nearby. Outside, the city was on fire, but inside, the scene was more relaxed. The girls were listening to music and cooking hot dogs with fellow motel guests when one, Carl Cooper, pulled out a shooter pistol and shot blanks into the air.
Police and the National Guard soon swarmed the building, looking for a sniper and a rifle that they believed made the noise. Cooper was shot in the melee. Hysell, Malloy and seven other guests — who, unlike Hysell and Malloy, were black — were lined up against a wall and interrogated. As the night wore on, the police officers hurled racial epithets and threatened to kill everyone if they didn’t come clean about the shots. “We were brutalized,” she says. “We were beaten for hours. I wouldn’t want anybody to go through that.”
Eventually a National Guardsman tried to defuse the situation and brought Hysell and Malloy back to their room. Hysell’s head was badly bleeding; she had been struck by an officer’s gun and needed stitches. But she was one of the lucky ones.
In the chaos of the night, three black men who were staying in the motel — Cooper, Auburey Pollard and Fred Temple — were shot to death. Hysell went back to Ohio and later testified in the trials of the police officers. They were found not guilty.
The events of that night are the subject of the new Kathryn Bigelow film “Detroit.” Hysell was on set nearly every day of shooting, advising Bigelow on the movie’s accuracy. In between scenes, the cast would pepper her with questions about that night. Participating in the production helped Hysell heal. “I don’t think I processed a lot of what happened until making this movie,” she says.
For weeks, Hysell watched as actors portrayed the charged events. They were shoved up against a wall, harassed and clubbed by performers dressed as police officers. It was tough. However, one moment hit Hysell harder than the rest. “The biggest day for me emotionally was when the not-guilty verdict was read,” she says. “Just those words. I had to leave the set.”
Hysell lost touch with the men and women who survived the night.
“Karen came home, changed her name,” says Hysell. “I saw her about a year later at a mall, and she looked at me, and you’d have thought she saw the Ghost of Christmas Past. She ran out of that mall.” Hysell rarely opened up to friends and family about the Algiers Motel incident. By her own admission she just wanted to blend in. But the guilt and fear remains. To this day she freezes up when seeing the lights of a police car. Hysell has found other ways to cope.
“I wonder: Is this why I drank and have been in AA for 22 years?” says Hysell. “Is this why I’ve been married three times? Did I have PTSD?” She also struggled with coming to terms with what role her race played in enraging the police officers. Did they turn violent at the sight of white women hanging out with black men? “I felt guilty because I was a white person and the black people were the ones who got killed,” she says. “If we’d been two black girls, maybe none of this would have happened.”
Hysell, now a 68-year-old mother of four and grandmother of five, has seen the film and praises Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal for capturing the turmoil of the night with so much care and detail. She hopes that audiences turn out to see the picture and that it helps foster a wider debate about race and the criminal-justice system. Each time there’s a shooting of an unarmed black man, be it Trayvon Martin or Freddie Gray, it stirs up her frustrations that the racial tensions that exploded in a Detroit motel five decades ago are still being sparked across America’s cities and towns.
“I’m shocked that 50 years later this is still happening,” Hysell says. “I’ve tried to raise my kids and my grandkids with the idea that everybody should be treated equal, no matter your color or your sexual preference or whatever. Everybody’s a person. You don’t go around shooting people.” (RTRS)
By Brent Lang