john boyega draws parallels between racism in America and the UK

As Kathryn Bigelow’s "Detroit" lands in theaters, John Boyega discusses his approach to acting and why he has no time for clickbait political commentary.

by Joseph Walsh
22 August 2017, 2:26pm

This article was originally published by i-D UK.

There is a chilling interrogation scene in Kathryn Bigelow's latest film Detroit where John Boyega delivers a gut-twisting performance. His lip quivers and his eyes widen as he realizes that the cops are trying to pin a crime on him that he didn't commit. However, the brutal, unsettling, and raw scene is in direct contrast to the John sitting in a London hotel to discuss his performance. He's smiling and (despite having talked about it again and again for the past month or so) is still eager to talk about the film.

Detroit is based on historical facts, carefully gathered by Bigelow and her writing collaborator Mark Boal, who she worked with on Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Her previous films are likewise based on factual events, but like many directors, Bigelow won't let the facts get in the way of a good story. Detroit is definitely her most brutal film to date, full of Bigelow's gift for generating tension and unafraid of showing violence.

In the film, John plays Melvin Dismukes, a man in the wrong place at the wrong time during the Detroit riots of 1967, which were sparked by mass arrests of African-American men at a speakeasy.

Working as a security guard at a local store, Dismukes ends up inside the Algiers Hotel along with a racist, livewire cop (Will Poulter) and his partners. They have captured several black men who they believe were shooting at them and decide to take them hostage until one confesses.

There is a lot of ground to cover with John. Not only is he one of the hottest new talents working in film (thanks to Star Wars), but there's also been a controversy surrounding Bigelow's Detroit, centering on a white director telling a black story. His response? "To be honest, I didn't care." For him, it was always about how Bigelow would tell the story, and the care she took in telling it, rather than the fact she is white.

"It is better that the movie is seen rather than considering who makes it. If it is made with good intention and based on stellar research, then it is cool by me" – John Boyega

"Sometimes you're not the best person to be making that movie," he explains, "but you are in the position to make it. But it is better that the movie is seen rather than considering who makes it. If it is made with good intention and based on stellar research, then it is cool by me."

He feels the same way about being a black British actor working in America, something he vigorously defended when Samuel L. Jackson criticized Hollywood's casting of black British actors. He called it, "A stupid ass conflict we don't have time for," on Twitter.

"I'm an actor as an individual" he explains. "We didn't all join hands, book the same flight, and head out to America." For him it's just good business to work wherever he can. "I am not going to say to myself as an actor that I'm not going to go for roles, or that I'm only going to go for parts that have a distinct closeness to who I am." He adds, "I'm not going to do that, I am going to go and audition, and if I book the part then congrats to me, and if I don't then I move on to the next one."

When it came to developing his character, John had the chance to meet the real-life Dismukes. "He was great," John explains. "My intention for the first conversation wasn't to discuss that night, it was more to get to know him as a person, separate from any issues. We talked about his childhood and his upbringing. It took us a while to get into other stuff."

Dismukes didn't have it easy after the Algiers incident. He was arrested and charges of conspiracy and assault were brought against him. He was viewed as an "Uncle Tom" figure and a willing participant in the racially motivated brutality of the police, and received death threats from the Black Panthers.

John gives a pause, then launches into his defense. "I think that a lot of people live by clickbait clarity these days, they don't really care what they comment about." He continues, "I don't think it is very deep for a lot of people, but for Melvin this was a real-life thing. People were being killed around him, and I don't know if it would be easy to make the brave choice. I personally think that it is unfortunate that he received the response he did."

We move on to the interrogation scene, another moment that has triggered debate about how the black characters are represented in the film. "It was certainly the hardest to close down," he begins. "I am not in the business of saying, 'Oh it was so hard for me' — I want to say, 'chill man, it's not that deep,'" he jokes.

What does he think about the violence on screen. Is it a little too much? Could it even be seen as torture porn? He pauses again. "What is actually funny, is that from Melvin and the survivors who had access to the set, they all said that the violence was toned down. It was much worse for the people who were actually there."

Given the recent events of Charlottesville, and ongoing racial tensions in the US, we discuss whether this will change how the film is viewed. "I feel that the conversation is going to be more rife and intense," he explains. "Movies are best known for pulling you away from your own world, not reminding you of what is going on literally outside, or a flight away — that adds another dimension to the reality."

He then draws comparisons with the UK today, "Recently in Dalston we had a demonstration based on the same things," adding, "we still have issues with black men dying and being abused in police custody." He recognizes that there are differences, but like he says, "I think that there is a through line." And with this through line, did he draw on the UK's history of racial tension and police violence for the film? "You don't have to look into the past," he notes. "I could probably point to something that happened last week."

He adds, "Detroit is a film that is meant to talk to your mentality and make you think, and make you ask questions that you should ask yourself. I think that is important."

Detroit opens in theaters August 25.

kathryn bigelow
John Boyega
detroit riots