Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Academy Award Winner Kathryn Bigelow Talks About Being A White Female Director on "Detroit"

By Darlene Donloe

For obvious reasons, Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) has always felt a bit ambivalent about directing a movie about some incidents that happened during the 1967 Detroit uprising.

In case those obvious reasons somehow are lost to the reader, it’s because she’s a white woman.

She’s heard everything from she can’t understand, to she shouldn’t, to she doesn’t have the sensibilities.  With all of that being thrown at her, Bigelow, who also produced the film, powered through. Now her latest film, Detroit, which opened in limited release on July 28, will open nationwide on August 4, 2017.

The promos for the movie ask - Do you know what happened in Detroit? Do you know what happened at the hotel?  Do you know why it’s been silenced til now?

Some of those questions are answered, while others are still a bit murky.  If you believe Mary Jarrett Jackson, Detroit’s first black female Deputy Police Chief, then what the movie reveals barely touches the surface of what really happened at the Algiers Motel in the summer of 1967 that resulted in the horrible deaths of three black Detroit teenagers.  The truth is even more sinister.

Detroit is written by Mark Boal and stars Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Anthony Mackie, John Boyega, Will Poulter, Jason Mitchell, Chris Chalk, Tyler James Williams, Peyton Alexander Smith, Laz Alonso, Ben O'Toole, Jack Reynor, Joseph David-Jones, Leon Thomas, Miguel Pimentel, Ephraim Sykes, Samira Wiley, Malcolm David Kelley, Nathan Davis Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Hannah Murray, Austin Hebert, John Krasinski and Jeremy Strong.

Kathryn Bigelow
Photo By Darlene Donloe
I recently caught up with Kathryn Bigelow (KB) and Mark Boal (MB) (Zero Dark Thirty) at the Foundation Hotel in Detroit to talk about the intense and controversial film.

Q: So, you’re a white woman telling the story of the Detroit uprisings.

KB: Yes, I’ve heard that I’m a white woman telling a black story. I had to have a very lengthy conversation with myself. I really obviously analyzed it long and hard. Am I the right person, absolutely not. On the other hand this story needed to be told. It overrode everything else. I have this opportunity. It needs to see the light of day. I took advantage of this opportunity. It's a concern and a challenge.

Q: Kathryn, what kind of research did you do for this film?

KB: There was a fair amount of research and court records and eyewitness accounts. Some of the information was in the Freedom of Information Act. The trial was three trials over a year and a half.  The last trial took place in Macon, Michigan.  It was moved out of the city into an exclusively white area. That outcome was a product of moving it to that city. The judge actually took manslaughter off the table. It was either first degree murder or an acquittal. I don't know if that can happen today. You took off an option that may have made the outcome different. We did our best.

Q: Talk about your musical approach and your choices.

KB: The song choices were a product of the culture at the time and the period. It was about digging deeper than my using more well known pieces. I wanted to keep it intriguing. Not everyone is well known. It added to the tapestry. You can’t tell the story without music. It's the DNA of the city at that time.

Q: When did you first learn about this story?

KB: Probably in early 2015. A screenwriter (Mark Boal) came to me with this story. I’m listening to it. A week earlier there was an acquittal of the officer in the Michael Brown shooting.  I heard that story and thought it was 50 years ago, but it’s today. This has to stop. I don’t know how – but to create a platform to encourage meaningful dialogue. I thought it was a tragedy that needed to see the light of day. Outside of Detroit no one knew about this.

Q:  It’s been 50 years and…

KB: And, nothing has changed. It’s like the acquittal of the policeman who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson. It has been 50 years and this is still happening. It happens again and again and again. I said to myself, ‘this has to stop. It really does have to stop.’

Mark Boal 
Q: Mark, there is some concern from local Detroiters that a movie like this would create tension with a changing Detroit. Is that something you heard or were concerned about?

MB: As far as what I’ve heard, I did a radio show this morning and some people called in and, the thing that struck me was everybody that was alive then has a memory from 1967 and one of the caller’s brother had been friends with some of the people killed at the Algiers. His brother was supposed to go that night, but their mom stood at door and said, “You can’t go out.”  Somebody else said the riot didn't start the way I showed it. It started the day before. The thing I’ve heard from the people that lived through ‘67 was a whole range of human experiences. The movie can only do what it can do. I also heard from people who didn't know this story. If it’s true that some people in Detroit didn’t know this story, then it’s definitely true in the rest of the country – that this story had been forgotten. When you talk about ‘67 usually the cultural representations are the summer of love and the hippie movement, exploration and rebellion. Meanwhile you have an urban strife going on. That‘s not part of our cultural awareness. To me this is an important story. This is an important piece of history.

Q: Mark, what kind of feedback are you getting?

MB: For the people who experienced this first hand, it was still fresh and emotional, even though it was 50 years ago. It’s a unique experience to see your life on screen. It’s disorienting. It’s been painful, but there is now acknowledgement that this happened. I don’t want to put words in their mouths. To be honest, I haven’t had these conversations. I’m not an expert on Detroit today. I’m really not. I can say that what I like best about the city are the people in it.

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