Why I Wrote Detroit

Photo: Annapurna Pictures

In the summer of 2014, I went up to Detroit to meet a man who had been very hard to find. He was called Cleveland Larry Reed, a common enough name, but it had taken a researcher several months to dig up a working telephone number. I left a few messages. When I finally got him on the phone, he wasn’t sure he wanted to see me, let alone talk about 50 years ago.

I promised that I wouldn’t waste his time, and he eventually let me into his apartment. It looked like Larry, in his mid-60s, hadn’t been out in a couple of days, maybe longer. Living alone, not too steady on his feet, he’d fallen a long way from the glamour and ease of his youth, of electrified nights singing and dancing for the fancy crowds at the Fox Theater downtown.

In 1967, Larry was 18 years old and the co-founder of a Motown group called the Dramatics. They were a bunch of friends who had honed their playground songs into a major-league act, touring the country, opening for Aretha Franklin, the Supremes, all the huge Detroit stars. Larry was deeply committed to his music and career and didn’t court trouble with anybody, much less the police. But one night, in the summer of ’67, at the Algiers Motel in Detroit’s Virginia Park section, he had an encounter with law enforcement that left him permanently wounded — mentally and artistically.

What brought Larry down wasn’t a flaw in his character, or a bad decision made in the heat of a moment, it was shitty luck and racism. At the height of the Detroit riots, when the Dramatics fled from a canceled gig and were trying to find a safe place, Ron Banks, the group’s other co-founder, managed to make it home, and would go on in the following years to lead the Dramatics to Billboard hits. By a random twist of fate, Larry and some of the others tumbled into the Algiers Motel, where they crossed paths with a police squad that judged them by the color of their skin. The result was a night of terror from which Larry never recovered. Turn left, go home. Turn right, grab a hotel room. What separated success from failure for young black men in the late 1960s was so thin, it was almost impossible to delineate in the moment.

On that muggy summer afternoon in 2014, after spending several hours with Larry, I found a lot to respect and admire. He had, despite everything, persevered in his determination to live as an artist. He now sung for various church choirs. I left his apartment feeling deeply compelled by his story and grieving for the potential that had been robbed from him.

The sort of interaction I had with Larry was unique, as all people are unique, but not entirely new to me. As a reporter and the writer of three scripts set in the real world, I often find true events and real people as my spark and inspiration. When I started Detroit, I thought of it as Larry’s story — one man who has his voice stolen from him. But as I learned about what happened at the Algiers Motel, and more broadly about what had been going on in the city of Detroit, the cast of characters grew. The five-day rebellion that will forever mark Detroit’s history started as a chain reaction, moving from person to person, group to group, until it engulfed 200 city blocks of a dense urban area. I followed the story outward from Larry’s own, interviewing firsthand as many participants and witnesses as I could, while bringing other characters to life from newspaper archives, police reports, federal lawsuits, and other contemporaneous accounts. It was a daunting task. You could take almost any person alive in Detroit in 1967 and they’d have a story to tell. At some point, the screenwriter in me has to tell the journalist to put his notebook down.

Larry’s story ended up sharing space with that of Melvin Dismukes, played so poignantly by John Boyega, as an African-American security guard stuck on both sides of the racial divide, and the sociopathic racist patrolman, Krauss, a character inspired by the actions and recorded deeds of a Detroit policeman.

Detroit in 1967 was highly segregated city, its racial boundaries enforced by the police. Young black men, in particular, were subject to routine assaults and humiliations as a means of keeping them in their place, and it was the accumulated anger and frustration from these encounters that exploded during a routine raid of an after-hours club on a hot July night. I thought it was important to show how even small interactions could be loaded with hostile, dehumanizing intent, like a cop grabbing the backside of a young black woman as he’s herding her into a van. I drew inspiration from the disturbing trove of news photos, like a famous one of police in riot gear advancing down the street on a “gang” of elegantly dressed grandmothers. Fear erased all semblance of civil society.

During the writing of the screenplay, in the summer of 2015, the story and characters took shape in a haunted mood of danger and sudden death, and I found myself working in horror-genre veins, except that in my case, the supernatural element was replaced with the all-too-real terror of racism. At the same time, the emerging narrative had elements of a crime saga, set against the backdrop of a city on fire. Although, in another twist on convention, in this crime tale the perps were the police.

By the time the draft was completed, and passed on to my frequent collaborator, director Kathryn Bigelow, I’d written something quite unlike the singular focus and sole protagonists of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. The effort to make Detroit a mirror of the chaotic times led to an ensemble piece, quickly shifting between characters in a nesting doll of movies within movies, a riot film that gives way to racial horror-crime that switches to a courtroom drama, with several detours along the way into a band’s journey, the miseducation of rookie cops, and the adventures of a pair of young women experimenting with sexual freedom. It was, in short, a lot of ground to cover in a single picture. But Kathryn was encouraging, and over the proceeding draft we collaborated closely to hone the themes and scope, while attempting to keep alive the spirit of a tough and untamed narrative.

The underlying intention, however, was always pretty straightforward: to unpack the riot and this one incident at the Algiers from the point of view of its many participants, and thereby enable the audience to experience the events themselves. We wanted viewers not so much to watch the story as absorb it like a physical sensation. This necessitated certain narrative devices, in order to slip the whole thing past the resistance viewers often have allowing troubling feelings to get in.

So, I aimed to make the film’s structure feel like a volatile crowd, unpredictable and densely populated. The dialogue was a constantly looming creative challenge. It couldn’t live in the past — it had to strike a middle ground between period authenticity and contemporary relatability. Most of all, the character arcs themselves had to bend to the reality of what the theorists call racial power structures. To me, that meant letting go of the screenwriter’s trusty toolbox and instead of using character to guide the plot — i.e., that character determines fate — embracing a plot in which social forces triumph, continuously and tragically, over individual will.

Beyond that, I don’t have anything prescriptive to say about racism in America, only the sorrowful and perhaps obvious observation that the lessons learned 50 years ago seemed to have been forgotten in the wake of continuing injustices in Ferguson, Baltimore, Baton Rouge, and so many other cities.  And while it is indeed an interesting and vital question to ask how much has changed since the 1960s between African-American communities and the police forces that putatively serve them, I leave that discussion to professionals in race and police reform. My interest was primarily in the human narrative, and the spiritual costs that the big social forces extract from us as individuals.

A word about research and real events: The foundation of the story, rooted as it is in an historical incident, was provided by an ample historical record, documents, police files, and a research team I commissioned, led by veteran investigative journalist David Zeman, who guided a Pulitzer Prize–winning series for the Detroit Free Press, among many other career highlights. The great journalist John Hersey wrote a book called The Algiers Motel Incident, which was published in 1968, before the dust had settled. Wherever possible, I took scenes and dialogue directly from contemporaneous accounts, like a newspaper story of a grieving mother on courthouse steps addressing the acquittal of the men charged with killing her son. There is, of course, a lot that is unknown or disputed, and in those cases, I employed poetic license, under a self-imposed rule to never stray from what I understood to be the underlying truth of a scene or an event. This script is built on a sturdy base of journalism and history, but it is not the same as journalism or history, nor does it aspire to be. As a screenwriter, I take the responsibility of being the creator of a tale, of transforming these raw materials into a drama.

I chose this story from the ’60s in part because the decade evokes such lively and contradictory associations. The summer of 1967 witnessed two of the worst civil disturbances in American history — first Newark, then Detroit. It is troubling even now to watch the news coverage of all that violence and destruction, but make no mistake about it — this was an uprising, a rebellion. This was black America lashing out against an entrenched culture of repression and bigotry. And yet the far more widely remembered (and celebrated) spectacle of rebellion from that same moment in time is of the Summer of Love, all those hippies, mostly white, joyfully grooving out in San Francisco. By now, the love-potion stuff has run its course, diffused into little more than an advertising trope, but the events in Detroit are hard evidence of a cultural crisis that remains unresolved, of two Americas that still don’t know quite how to deal with each other.

Detroit opens in select cities on July 28 and goes wide on August 4.

Why I Wrote Detroit