Reliving history

REAL-LIFE EVENTS: John Boyega as Melvin Dismukes in Detroit.
REAL-LIFE EVENTS: John Boyega as Melvin Dismukes in Detroit.
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Star Wars actor John Boyega chats to Susan Griffin about his new film Detroit and working with director Kathyrn Bigelow.

London-born John Boyega, who received the EE Rising Star Award at the 2016 Baftas, stars in Detroit, a movie that focuses on the events of one particular night during the city’s summer of civil unrest in 1967.

In the film, directed by Academy Award winning director Kathryn Bigelow, the 25-year-old portrays real-life security guard, Melvin Dismukes, a witness at the Algiers Motel where several policemen conducted a “death game” in an attempt to intimidate motel guests into confessing following a report of gunshots in the area. By the end of the night, three unarmed young men had been gunned down point blank, and several other men and women had been brutally beaten.

The Star Wars actor talks about the film’s contemporaneous themes, the importance of social commentary in the projects he undertakes and why he’s not leaving his career to chance.

Kathryn Bigelow has said “it’s not an option to do nothing” with regards to putting the spotlight on the injustices people face. Do you feel that way too, particularly in light of recent events in Charlottesville?

“Yeah it’s getting to that point in everyone’s lives now where the issues of several ignorant individuals and the negativity that they’re spreading, it’s now interrupting with whatever bubble we’ve created for ourselves. Now, we can’t ignore it and you have to do something about it and being silent is not an option and I agree with that 100%.”

Do you feel a responsibility given you’re in the public eye to do more movies like this, ones that are controversial and hard-hitting?

“For me, it doesn’t necessarily feel like a responsibility because I’m still doing films that are a personal gain for me but I feel it’s important to be part of stories that have a serious narrative and are informative as well. It’s worthwhile and gives you purpose.”

You spoke to Melvin ahead of portraying him on screen. Do you sense he’s haunted by what happened that night in 1967?

“I tend not to go there in terms of someone who’s been through something like that because to each his own in terms of how they deal with a process but his passion and support for Detroit has been amazing and we got into talking about the real deep stuff really quickly. We had a great chemistry in our conversation and he’s been very, very open so I really commend him with how strong he’s been, to relive his history on this scale is nuts.”

When watching the film, it feels like Melvin is a helpless spectator to the events happening around him? Can you talk about that?

“Yeah he’s the silent observer and he is also us. If we were thrust into a situation that we did not prepare for that requires a high level of bravery, what would we do? Would we make the right decision? Would we be able to? And that’s something I think his character stands for. He definitely stands as the onlooker and the onlooker who’s trying to decide where his position is in all of this.”

During the harrowing interrogation scenes, did you ever have the urge to jump in to try and stop what you were witnessing?

“No, definitely not because by then the research has been done and the character arc had been created and I knew exactly what to pinpoint (things) in terms of performance. But when I first read the script I was definitely saying, ‘He should’ve picked up a gun and shot three people and done this’ and (then) I’m like, ‘John, shut up. If you was there, you probably would’ve been doing that man’, so it’s very, very important to have perspective and it wasn’t a safe situation for Melvin.”

How intense was the atmosphere on set between takes?

“There was a sense of purpose throughout the whole set so there was always an intensity and that’s something I really, really enjoyed actually and even the crew understood that. Obviously there needs to be unity and the Detroit set was like that.”

What’s your favourite Kathryn Bigelow film?

“The Hurt Locker (starring Jeremy Renner). I think for most of us, we were so excited to be part of a [then] ‘Untitled Kathryn Bigelow project’. My curiosity and the main thing I was excited about was how does she get these real visceral performances from actors and how will she get that out of me? It just motivated me and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

You’re known for your work on sci-fi fantasy films such as Star Wars and the upcoming Pacific Rim: Uprising. How important is it to have a social subtext in these sorts of films?

“The best sci-fi does still have social commentary so for me there still is that mentality you bring to each project. I only want to be in things I’d like to watch. For me, it’s the same kind of commitment for Star Wars as Detroit. The only real difference is the process, the director and obviously Star Wars being Star Wars; it’s a completely different machine. Detroit is special. I needed this project to give me perspective and to give me a different way of working and a different process.”

Looking ahead, do you have a master plan with regards to your career?

“The humble thing to say would be, ‘No, no, I’m just leaving each day as it comes’ and I wish I could say that but no, I have a master plan. It’s just a plan creatively with what I’d like to do and I just think I’m in a place where I can strategically choose (what I do). I have my own company now as well so I get to really just plan what I want to put out.”


Kathryn Bigelow was born in San Carlos, California in 1951.

She studied fine art at San Francisco Art Institute graduating in 1972 and went on to study for a masters in film at Columbia University where her tutors included Milos Forman.

Her first full-length film was the biker movie The Loveless (1982), followed by western vampire movie Near Dark (1987). Her breakthrough film was 1989’s cop movie Blue Steel, starring Jamie Lee Curtis. Her more recent hit movies include the award-winning The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty.

Detroit (15) is released in cinemas today.