Talking Ethics with the Cast of DETROIT

Ben O’Toole, Laz Alonso and Tyler James Williams at the World Premiere of DETROIT.
Photo: Eric Charbonneau

BEN O’TOOLE, LAZ ALONSO AND TYLER JAMES WILLIAMS

Fifty years ago riots rocked the city of Detroit. And, even though it was the summer ’67, some of these themes feel all too familiar. Now a feature film tells the powerful of story of one of the darkest moments during civil unrest. It called DETROIT and boasts an all-star ensemble cast directed by Academy Award winning filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow [The Hurt Locker, and Zero, Dark Thirty]. Risen talked with Ben O’Toole, Laz Alonso and Tyler James Williams about research, facts, ethics and the lessons to be learned.

Risen Magazine: How much research went into the film to try to recreate the atmosphere of Detroit at the time?
Laz Alonzo: Well the interesting thing was that Katherine [Bigelow] actually spent a tremendous amount of time before filming this with Congressman John Conyers and getting information from him and what he went through. As far as the material that ended up on the page, it was heavily influenced by his personal account. I tried my best to do as much research as possible to get his voice down, to get his diction, his cadence, his rhythm as close as I could possibly find it but more than anything it was working backwards. Most of the material that I found was him in today’s times and just trying to work my way back to 50 years ago.

I think one of the main things I found just in my research was back then you had pretty much two styles of leadership. You had Martin [Luther King] and you had Malcolm [X] and on that day, Congressman Conyers was trying to Martin-handle the crowd and they wanted Malcolm. The straw had already broken the camel’s back and people needed to be heard. And that’s what we witnessed in this film.

RM: Ben, what was it like getting into the mindset of the police officers involved in the Algiers Motel incident?
Ben O’Toole: What’s that expression, “Evil thrives when good men do nothing”, or something like that. They [police force] could have been, should have been, checked on this and they weren’t.  So it went to that degree; it went as far as it could go because it was allowed to. In approaching this we sort of had to tackle the idea of, “What do you do psychologically in order to be able to do this to another human being? To do these things to someone else?” It’s kind of really tricky because we often don’t do them [the horrific acts] to other people, or what we see as people. It is done to objects, or to things, so it’s this level of dehumanization – that’s a huge sort of thing that we looked at with this level of aggression. The things that these guys were doing to the young men was dehumanizing to the point that there was no sort of moral [conviction] and they were free to do what they wanted.

Leading up to shoot we trained with police officers. We had quite a bit of help from the Boston police force. We found ourselves constantly kind of saying, “It’s not an anti-cop film. There are a couple of bad eggs that you guys put a badge on and at the end of the day, this is not opinion, these are facts. This happened.” We’re just telling that story.

RM: Even though this summer marks fifty years since the Detroit riots in the summer of 1967, what can we learn from the story and especially along the lines of our moral code and ethics?
LA: Because this incident happened 50 years ago, and it’s not a story of today’s time, hopefully it will allow a broader audience to come in and learn something historical. Because it is a factual, historical movie, it’s not there to beat you over the head, to make you feel guilty, or tell you, you’re bad and you’re good. No, this happened in a moment in history that we’re not aware of. I think that the key learning moment here, the teachable moment here for those that watch it today is, “Okay, let’s connect it to the similarities that’s going on right now.” This happened 50 years ago. What can we do? Let’s talk about what we can do to change this narrative.
Tyler James Williams: I think there’s this weird percentage question where there’s always this argument of, “was this person a perceived threat?” The majority of these characters were running away. They perceived a danger and tried to get away from it and were killed. So, when talking about police brutality, there’s also this recurring theme of people choosing flight and still dying, and that kind of gets rid of this whole perceived threat argument. [My character] took two shells to the back. You don’t shoot people in the back when they’re running away from you. That is also a part of this conversation. We came to this boiling point and people were really brought down to their primitive instincts, “What am I going to do here?” And the reasons we have the laws we have in place is so that when something like that happens, we can quickly differentiate to what we’re supposed to do, and if it’s not happening properly.

DETROIT opens nationwide Friday, August 4.

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