What has history taught us?
How do we celebrate the progress and successes made in the past decades while the struggle continues for racial equity and harmony?
The new film, DETROIT from Annapurna Pictures is helmed by famed Oscar winning director, Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker) and opens in theaters this week. Bringing to bear reflections of a national crisis that occurred 50 years ago and continues today–murdering young, innocent, unarmed black men–the riots that ensued, left in their aftermath many unanswered questions, still.
If you weren’t born 50 years ago nor have knowledge of the events that I speak, a recent TIME Magazine article describes the Detroit incidents of a half century ago, thusly—
The Detroit riot brought the first confrontation between Lyndon Johnson and Michigan’s Governor George Romney, who, despite some slippage in recent months, is still a formidable possibility for the next Republican presidential nomination. Both men were sensitive to the big—and unpredictable—implications for 1968 in everything they did.
Aware that the combined efforts of the Detroit police and Michigan’s National Guard would probably not be enough to contain Detroit’s rioters, Romney telephoned Attorney General Ramsey Clark at 3:30 a.m. Monday to let him know that he might have to ask for reinforcements in the form of federal troops.
The President, who had been alerted before midnight by Clark that things might fall apart, dispatched Cyrus Vance, the recently retired Deputy Defense Secretary and a longtime friend, to size up the situation in Detroit.
By 10 a.m., Romney and Detroit’s Mayor Jerome Cavanagh were convinced that they would need Army aid: a wire went off to the White House saying that there was “reasonable doubt” that the situation could be contained. The President turned to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and, at 11:02 a.m., ordered up the paratroops—but sent them only as far as Selfridge Air Force Base outside Detroit, not into the riot area itself.
Simultaneously, the Republican Coordinating Committee rushed into the act. Twenty-six members of the 36-man policymaking panel had been at work on a riot paper, drafted by two-time G.O.P. Presidential Candidate Thomas E. Dewey, Florida Representative William Cramer (author of the House-passed antiriot bill) and Colorado Governor John Love.
Accusing Lyndon Johnson of a good share of responsibility for the state of anarchy that prevailed in the nation’s riot-torn cities, it also hinted that a conspiracy was behind the disorder.
Meanwhile, Detroit deteriorated. Romney, anxious to move the waiting paratroopers into the city, told Cy Vance: “We gotta move, man, we gotta move.” Finally, at midnight, the President went on national television to explain the state of emergency and the ordering of troops into Detroit. He also made no fewer than seven references to Romney’s inability to control his own state.
Armed with a brilliant cast that includes John Boyega, Will Poulter, Jacob Latimore, Malcolm David Kelley, Joseph Davis-Jones, Laz Alonzo, Algee Smith, Leon Thomas III, Tyler James Williams, Samira Wiley, John Krasinski and Anthony Mackie, plus a timely theatrical release, DETROIT, the film, is a tribute to the hard fought battles of our past and ones we continue to strive for. America is better and will be better, but, much work is required.
I sat down with the ever working Dallas native, Peyton Alex
Smith (BET’s The Quad), to discuss his role as “Lee” in DETROIT. Peyton, 23, shares his views on this very important film—
Sandra Varner/Talk2SV: What is your interpretation of this critical snapshot in history as a young African American male enjoying present day success and a bright future ahead?
Peyton Alex Smith (PAS): For me it’s about showing the complexity of a black male—in this film–I think we show the black male in a vulnerable state. We don’t usually see that complexity, especially in a film about black men and black women as well. Usually we’re angry or we’re fiery.
My character [in DETROIT] speaks up from time to time in self defense; I also show the vulnerable side of the character when I feel that my power is being taken from me. That was something I had to wrestle with because in one particular scene, my directions were, ‘You’re the Malcolm X type character, speak up.’ So I just went for it!
I was reminded that the period of this film was 1967, so to speak up would have been out of line for my character–so I had to bring it back in and think about that–change the dynamic of everything we did. But it was cool and gave me a chance to grow with the character.
Talk2SV: What impact will this role have on you from this point forward?
PAS: I try to really ‘put myself’ into my characters. Going into the Detroit project, I didn’t know about “Lee” or who I was going to play; it was that way for a lot of us. We found out who our characters were once we began.
I did a lot of research on the time period, the era. I knew about Detroit in the l960’s-70, but I didn’t necessarily know about the Algiers Motel. I listened to a lot of Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Al Green just to get that feeling of the Detroit music scene. Once I started to get to know my character, I got in touch with him and found out that me and Jason Mitchell, cast as Carl Cooper, my best friend in the film, really clicked.
Some of the shooting scenes were very long so it helped that we got along in that intense on screen environment. There were times when after a long shooting day, when I left the set I was snapping at everybody, forgetting in was 2016 (when the film was made) rather than 1967.
I wouldn’t let anybody disrespect me or say anything wrong to me–I had to relax, get massages, do something for relief because I was just … snap, snap, snap. I wanted my power back and I felt like it had been taken from me.
Talk2SV: When you describe feelings of powerlessness brought on by the role you had in this film, many would look at you today and think that the world is your oyster. In present day, given your rising celebrity, are there moments where you feel that everything is yours for the taking or are there moments when you feel limitations are part of your reality?
PAS: Recently, I’ve done a lot of soul searching trying to figure that out myself—there were times, sitting up late into the night when I was younger than I am now, instinctively, I knew I was supposed to do something or be important. But I didn’t know how to do it. I knew I was supposed to change the world…and, I found my voice.
I’m not the type to take to the streets to march in protest and that doesn’t mean I knock those who do. But acting felt like the right medium for me to express my true feelings and serve as a catalyst for change and to be an activist for things I feel passionate about.
No, I don’t feel any limitations. But, I think I grew from being afraid of failure to being afraid of success because I don’t necessarily know what is going to come with it.