Fifty years ago, in the early morning of July 23, 1967, a police raid on an after-hours club in Detroit led to five days of rage in the streets. There was looting, arson, and death.
By the time it ended, tanks were patrolling the city, along with thousands of policemen, National Guardsmen, and Army paratroopers. More than 1,000 buildings were burned, more than 7,000 people were arrested, and 43 were killed.
Three of the deceased were young men found shot at the Algiers Motel, not far from the worst of the rioting. Three policemen were charged with their murder but were ultimately acquitted.
That’s the subject of Kathryn Bigelow’s new film “Detroit,” opening Friday. The only woman to receive a best director Oscar (for 2009’s “The Hurt Locker”), Bigelow started out making avant-garde films; moved on to genre films such as “Near Dark” (1987), “Point Break” (1991), and “Strange Days” (1995); then graduated to films drawn from real life, such as “Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), and now “Detroit.”
Bigelow spoke on the phone from New York about her new film, what she hopes to accomplish by releasing it in a country where racial divisions remain a critical issue, and how she used Boston locations to fill in for 1967 Detroit.
Q. The issue of race has become even more polarized since the election of Donald Trump. How do you think this film will be accepted and what do you hope it will accomplish?
A. We were already into post-production when the election took place. So there was no way the film could have responded to that directly. But my question in making the film was how do you begin a dialogue about race in this country? It’s been difficult for the last 50 years. Unlike in South Africa where there seems to be a very open conversation about truth and reconciliation, here the conversation about race is very quiet. It’s a polarizing time, so that conversation might be even more relevant today. My hope is that by telling this story it might encourage other stories asking questions about why such racial conflict keeps recurring. I worked with Henry Louis Gates on this aspect of the film; it’s painfully complex and I don’t pretend to know how such a conversation can take place. But, as a filmmaker, this is a medium I am conversant in, so I hope to tell this story. Maybe then a dialogue can arise.
Q. Do you expect criticism from those who question using fictional devices to tell a nonfiction story?
A. Mark Boal [the screenwriter] used his judgment as a reporter and he relied on the contemporary reporting on the incident, the court documents, and everything else that was available. When there were gaps and discrepancies — it’s a movie, not a documentary — in those gaps we used a slight amount of fictionalization. But it’s all based in research. There’s a lot of reporting on this event. Not just on the riots but on the Algiers Motel events also, for which I believe the reporters from the Detroit Free Press won Pulitzers. It’s a well-researched incident. But it’s not well known outside of Detroit, which is another reason I took this on because it’s a story that needs to be told.
Q. How did you and Mark Boal turn this reporting into images on the screen?
A. You kind of go through it scene by scene. In order to shoot it I have to be able to see it. I see it in my mind’s eye and we go through it together and then I begin to build a visual storyboard. In this case it was a number of photographic records from the period as well as documentary references compiled. In researching for the movie I probably compiled 1,500 images. And then I went to Detroit and spent time with those individuals I just mentioned to you.
Q. How did you end up shooting in Boston instead of Detroit?
A. We originally located it in Detroit but the tax-credit program had just been disbanded so we went to Massachusetts, to Boston, and shot the movie there. That was a great experience with great production crews. Beginning in 2016 we shot all around the city from Brockton to Dorchester. Thank the state of Massachusetts on my behalf, because it was a great production experience on all levels. The house we used for the location where most of the film takes place is a residence in Dorchester. The people were absolutely lovely. Basically my production designer took over the house and transformed it into the Algiers Motel annex, which is a three-story Victorian that was physically right next to the motel. That’s where the alleged sniper fire came from that set in motion this tragedy.
Q. It seems like after starting out making films that were avant garde or based in genre you have moved on to films about real events. Why is that?
A. The films I made prior to “The Hurt Locker” enabled me to learn about craft. But with “The Hurt Locker” I began to see film as a kind of journalism. The emphasis wasn’t just on the filmmaking, or the relationship between screen and viewer, but also on topicality. A film was an opportunity to give information. When I made “The Hurt Locker” I remember at the time that Iraq was a very under-reported engagement. It was somewhat abstract to the man on the street. Like IED [improvised explosive device], what is an IED? Or what’s a day in the life of an EOD [explosive ordinance disposal expert]? It was an opportunity to unpack that information in a more topical way. Mark Boal introduced me to the more journalistic aspects of film and definitely has influenced my decision to engage in it, from “The Hurt Locker” to “Zero Dark Thirty” to “Detroit.”
Q. So there will be no “Point Break II?”
A. I doubt it. For me this feels like a really productive utilization of the medium. Especially if you can engage an audience and provide new information and at the same time create an active relationship between viewer and screen. Humanizing the conflict and tragedy of the Algiers has the potential to create empathy, and out of empathy we can achieve dialogue. Empathy is different from sympathy. It is a more active engagement. From it comes dialogue, and out of that comes, maybe, the start of justice.
Q. So instead of covering the entirety of the uprising you re-create the immediacy of these individuals’ experiences so a viewer has an idea of what it’s like to be in a dehumanized situation.
A. That’s right. It starts with the background and asks the question: How can a community be so angry and so frustrated that they burn their own houses down? The beauty of Mark Boal’s screenplay is that it provides a large canvas and then telescopes down to several different characters and then continues to telescope down to a single character with whom you can engage. I know I’m just a filmmaker, but it’s so important that the country be engaged in this, it just has to be done.
Interview was edited and condensed. Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.