When actor Algee Smith auditioned for the movie Detroit, all he knew was that Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow was attached to it.
The 22-year-old Saginaw, Michigan, native wasn’t familiar with the ’67 riots that destroyed Detroit, or the aftermath. Smith recalls being shocked by what he learned.
“I did my own research, not just about the Detroit riots, but about the riots that took place between 1965 and 1969,” says Smith, calling just before the movie’s premiere at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, which plays a pivotal role in the film.
“There were a bunch of uprisings. I never knew about that. It was truly a learning experience. It’s a feeling that’s hard to express. You get tired of hearing about it, but you know the root of it. I know why my people are doing this. They’re trying to be heard. (They’re thinking) ‘What else do I have to do to be heard? Do I have to cause a big commotion?’ It was interesting to hear the roots and why this is still going on today.”
Opening Friday, August 4, the R-rated Detroit tells the true story of a violent night at the Algiers Motel after gunshots were reported. The Detroit Police Department, the Michigan State Police, the Michigan Army National Guard and a local private security guard rushed the Algiers’ annex and viciously interrogated and terrorized motel guests, to try to get a confession. The movie was written by Mark Boal, who also worked on Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker with Bigelow.
Smith plays Larry Reed, The Dramatics’ frontman who takes shelter in the annex with a friend. The singer-actor is joined in the film by John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker, Captain America: Civil War), John Krasinski (13 Hours), Will Poulter (The Revenant), Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton) and Jacob Lattimore (Collateral Beauty).
“We all put our soul into this, literally,” he says. “We knew the weight of this project. It wasn’t easy at all. We were thinking about all the real-life people who went through this. It was super tough.”
The two-and-a-half-hour film aptly captures the intensity of the evening at the Algiers. Smith credits Bigelow, who kept the performers on their toes. He didn’t know which character he was playing until two weeks before filming began.
“In any field of work, you want to walk into your job prepared and know your stuff,” he says. “Kathryn was like, nah nah. She threw us in there and we had to swim. I feel like it worked so well. We had nothing to go off of except real-life reactions when we walked into the (motel) rooms.
“Sometimes, she wouldn’t even tell us what or who was on the other side of the door. We’d have to be surprised while the camera was on. That’s how we made the audiences feel like that.”
Smith also didn’t meet with the real Larry Reed until near the end of filming, which, he says, worked in his favor.
“First of all, Larry is just amazing,” Smith says. “I feel like that’s me when I get older. If I would have met him earlier, I would have tried to study him and get certain things down. I would have asked him certain questions.
“This way, I already had the movie weight off my shoulders. I went to his door and he busted out laughing. He said, ‘You’re going to play me real good. You have the swagger. You have everything.’ We had a three-hour conversation on his couch. He showed me his scars, where his skull was cracked. We had a real heart-to-heart moment.”
Smith can relate to Reed, as the performer scored his first song in a movie soundtrack. The track “Grow” is among tunes by The Dramatics, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, The Roots and John Coltrane.
“Oh man, that made me cry,” Smith says. “This is my first movie placement as a songwriter as well. This is my best work as an actor, as well, and when both of my worlds come together, it’s amazing. I’m blessed that Kathryn took a chance on me. That’s unheard of. I’m just jittery.”
Throughout the filming, though, there was something more important, more poignant that stood out.
“All police aren’t bad,” he says. “The problem is that a lot of people think all police are bad. The issue is some policemen who are hired shouldn’t be policemen.
“We have to look at who they’re hiring and where they put the policemen. You can’t put a policeman in a neighborhood with people he’s afraid of protecting. What’s the point? That was a real eyeopener for me.”