One of the most remarkable things about Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit is the cast. Outside of John Boyega and Anthony Mackie, the actors are largely unknown. Casting it that way means we get to know each one of the characters without any preconceived ideas of who they might be in the film. There are so many great performances in this ensemble but the standout, and probably the film’s biggest revelation, is Algee Smith. He plays Cleveland Larry Reed, an 18-year-old kid swept up in the chaos of the 1967 Detroit riot whose dreams of being a singer in the up-and-coming Motown group The Dramatics begin to fade after the night at the Algiers Motel. It isn’t just Smith’s obvious charisma and good looks; his transformation in the film is the most extreme.
“There were times where a couple of us broke down on set just crying in the middle of a scene because it was just so heavy,” the actor told the Detroit Free Press. “But we knew why we were there. You definitely knew the responsibility.”
So often in Hollywood films, the typical “coming of age” story is one where all-American nostalgia runs headlong into the harsh realities of adult life. Larry Reed’s story, and that of his companions on that fateful night, is specific to what it was like to come of age in mid-century Detroit, where idyllic nostalgia was in short supply. Harsh realities of day-to-day survival become a life and death struggle, a constant audition to prove your worth, a perpetual fight to wrestle out of the trap of being condemned at birth and consigned to a narrow path by White America.
In all three collaborations between Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, the central character is disillusioned by the world they thought they knew. Thrust into dreadful circumstances, they see things that leave them shattered, and experience things they can never come back from in one piece. They emerge forever changed. At the end of The Hurt Locker, Anthony Mackie’s character breaks down driving away from an emotionally shattering scene of a suicide bomber having second thoughts but unable to break free from the bombs impossibly tangled around him. Mackie’s character is broken; the war broke him. The film’s lead, Jeremy Renner, reaches that point too but his decision is not to abandon it, but rather to accept the insanity of war as his own reality. In Zero Dark Thirty, Maya is charged with the singular mission of tracking down Osama Bin Laden. On top of that imperative duty, she has to battle all the male intelligence and military officers along the way, to prove her capability, to be taken seriously. She watches her best friend die, stands witness to scenes of torture, and is nearly killed herself. By the end, when she’s looking at Bin Laden’s body, her mission accomplished, she too has been broken by it, the inanity of it.
They each put themselves in these situations because they thought they could handle it – though what human could and at what cost? In Detroit, Algee Smith’s Cleveland Larry Brown is simply living his life, out on the town as a handsome, talented, ambitious teen. That’s all cut short when he abruptly finds himself drawn into a berserk situation where some will survive but others will not. He’s one of the lucky ones, but the experience breaks him. He will need to piece himself back together to live out the rest of his days with a semblance of normalcy — but how can balance be restored after what he saw, what he went through? No one can come back from that whole.
To see a young actor to give such a fully realized performance is rare. By any measure, Algee Smith’s tightly detailed performance ought to propel him to become one of this year’s strongest contenders for Best Actor. As for Smith himself, though he dived deep into the role, he was careful not to let his work destroy him, as he told NPR:
“With all due respect to Larry, I don’t think I can put myself in that place. That’s a place where no human being would want to put themselves in. I tried to get as close as I could on set … just to try to get a glimpse of what he was actually maybe feeling. But I could never feel that way.”
His involvement in the film did leave him changed, however — it renewed his determination to fight for equality and justice, a reignited catalyst that everyone watching the film will hopefully feel. “I would say it puts more fuel to the fire of my personal mission as a human being to do something about it, and as a black man to do something about it.”