Algee Smith has been taking us back lately. Earlier this year, he thrilled us as Ralph Tresvant in BET’s “The New Edition Story.” Now, as one-time Dramatics member Cleveland Larry Reed in director Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” he’s eviscerating us. While both men are singers, that’s where the similarities in their stories end. One is a tale of triumph, the other a real-life nightmare.
Although touted as a film about the 1967 Detroit riots, which took place just days after the one in Newark ended and only a couple of years after Watts in Los Angeles, it is really about the horrific events at the Algiers Motel where three young Black men were murdered and seven others brutalized, mostly by white Detroit policemen. Two young white women also were present. Reed is a survivor of that tragedy.
The film is so brutal and dehumanizing that members of the audience at an early Atlanta screening hosted by the African American Film Critics Association [AAFCA] were noticeably tense afterwards. Emotions were so high Smith’s post-screening Q&A got off to a rocky start. Luckily for Smith, who grew up in Atlanta but has family roots in Saginaw near Detroit, playing Ralph Tresvant has generated a lot of goodwill and eventually, the people warmed to him.
“That energy is something I’m not used to,” Smith admits the following afternoon after taking an emotional tour of the Center for Civil and Human Rights with fellow cast member Leon Thomas III, who plays Darryl, a fictional member of The Dramatics, in the film. Nicole Moore, manager of education and museum content, conducted the tour that included a jarring sit-down at a lunch counter, a glimpse into Dr. Martin Luther King’s death and his papers, and a crash-course on global human rights. For the latter, CCHR CEO Derreck Kayongo, who hails from Uganda, took over.
“[‘Detroit’] is way more taxing on the mind, the soul and the heart than ‘New Edition’ because that [‘The New Edition Story’] was just giving life to the community,” a visibly moved Smith says. “That was showing the essence of the greatness, how they could travel the world and go to all these different places.
“So, you flip the script and you come here [to ‘Detroit’] and it’s completely different.”
It’s a necessary difference, according to Thomas. “The more information we learn, the better informed we become and I know that, moving forward, what we’ve done with this film, with ‘Detroit,’ is we’ve given a voice to people,” he says. “And it’s not fair that I’m telling people about the Algiers Motel story and they’re completely clueless about it.
“People have to know our struggle. They have to know what we’ve been through.”
Knowing Larry Reed’s story humbles Smith, who was able to meet him toward the end of filming. “It’s funny because I expected him to be very closed up,” he says of that meeting. “I expected him to not be very talkative, to kind of be shy, to himself and he wasn’t that at all. That’s what really shocked me.
“When I walked through that door, he just bust out laughing and he was just so happy. He was just like, ‘I’m happy they picked you to play me’ and I’m just like ‘How?’ Smith continues. “And he’s showing me all these things. Like he took my hand and put it on his skull where it’s cracked. He showed me this and he showed me every single cast he still had to this day and he was telling me about his best friend Fred [Temple who was among those killed].
“It was completely different than what I thought it was going to be and I am just sitting there wondering how someone that went through that is so vibrant still to this day,” he says. “How are you still like that? We just had a three- to four-hour conversation at his house. I didn’t want to leave and I could tell he didn’t want me to leave.
“It’s so crazy because we still call each other back and forth to this day.”
Smith takes that kinship seriously. “I feel responsible for a part of his peace in a sense and that’s a heavy weight on me,” he says. “I’m just blessed to be able to have a voice at least and to be able to speak through some type of art and touch people like that.
“I will never know how he truly feels about me doing this for him. I only know what he tells me. I don’t know what he really thinks at night when he’s going to sleep and he’s in his true thankfulness and his true peace but it was definitely an amazing experience getting to share life with him.”
“Detroit” is in theaters now.