“It’s truth, and sometimes truth isn’t what you want to see all the time, what you want to hear,” actor Algee Smith says. “It’s ugly.”
He’s talking about Detroit, the Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal drama about a notorious 1967 incident in which a group of young, unarmed black men and two white women were brutalized by police—and three of them were shot dead—at the Algiers Motel. The 22-year-old Smith anticipates that the film will be “difficult for people to sit through,” and perhaps he’s right; the movie ended up ranking No. 8 at the box office its opening weekend, despite largely positive reviews. But regardless of audience turnout, says Smith, “the thoughts that are triggered are the important part, what they’re thinking when they leave.” The movie, he says, should inspire “self-examination: ‘Am I doing anything that furthers this horrible mind-set? Or am I actually helping?’”
While Detroit hasn’t become one of the summer’s runaway moneymakers, Smith can count himself its breakout star. There’s little denying the power of his leading performance as Dramatics frontman and Algiers victim Larry Reed. A relative newcomer to the big screen who until now was best known for starring as Ralph Tresvant in BET’s The New Edition Story (and the 2012 Disney Channel original Let It Shine), Smith has the emotional accessibility and versatility necessary to embody the 18-year-old Reed through Detroit’s punishing 140-minute running time. He is the film’s heart and soul—or as Bigelow writes Vanity Fair by e-mail, its “emotional spine.” That position makes his deterioration at the hands of an unjust justice system even more wrenching.
Smith recalls meeting the real-life Reed after filming Detroit. The aged Motown singer-turned-church choir director laughed at him upon first glance: “You got the swag. They did good on picking you for me. You’re gonna play me real good.” Now, sitting in the Bowery Hotel’s lobby lounge in downtown Manhattan, Smith sports an oversized black Moschino tee and tattered blue jeans, paired with a silver chain necklace and gold watch. A thin beard traces his jawline into a tightly trimmed goatee and mustache; he wears a slight, right-facing part in his hair. An oncoming cold has caused him to cancel and postpone other interviews, and he nurses his throat with a Patron-cranberry juice in one hand, a hot tea in the other. His first real press run has led to a long week; as he puts it, “shit has been crazy.” But now the actor-musician—who also performs a song, “Grow,” with Reed on the Detroit soundtrack—is re-centering and recuperating for a sold-out show at SOB’s in SoHo. Even in sickness, the swag is evident.
A born performer to a musician father (who coincidentally toured playing guitar for New Edition) and a fashion designer mother, he moved from Michigan to Atlanta at age 8 in part to get formally started in the arts. (Smith was also writing raps from a young age, but eventually matured into a soulful crooner.) Smith says working in Atlanta allowed him to “perfect my craft” with a string of guest stints on locally filmed series, including his Disney outing five years ago. But it wasn’t until his move to Los Angeles at age 20 that “everything just started lining up for me.” Now living out west with his parents and four of his siblings, it seems like continued successes are inevitable. (Unsurprisingly, Smith has at least one thing in the pipeline that he stays contractually tight-lipped about.)
In Detroit, we first see Smith as Reed riding high at the Fox Theatre. He is slated to make his big Dramatics debut to a predominantly white audience dancing in the aisles—until the theater is evacuated due to the riot roaring outside. Hungry for his big break and refusing to take no for an answer, Larry rushes the stage as the final theatergoer exits and begins singing a cappella: “If you haven’t got love, you’re lonely, so lonely.” Smith’s voice quivers with adrenaline and desperation, nearly pleading with the empty seats to play along with his fantasy. It’s the first sign of the vulnerability and tenderness the actor can employ on camera.
“It’s heartbreaking, because you see how hungry he is for that dream. He just wants to share his gift with millions of people,” Smith says of his character. But ultimately, the actor thinks the real Reed found “true peace” in quitting Motown and turning to the church—despite the horrific events that led him there. “When he went to that church, that’s the way he could get his redemption and find peace with everything that he went through,” he says. “It’s kind of weird to say, but now he has more peace in his life than he did before.”
Bigelow trusted Smith to define that complex character. “When Algee walked into the room for his initial audition, he immediately captured your heart and mind with his sincerity, integrity, and honesty,” the director says. “[He] possesses an uncanny ability to create a three-dimensional character. He brings a warmth and authenticity, filled with depth as well as surprise.”
While auditioning for Bigelow was “one of the greatest things I’ve ever done in my life,” Smith almost didn’t make the tryout. He was in the middle of rehearsals for The New Edition Story when a casting call for an “untitled Kathryn Bigelow project” went out. The BET team ran a tight ship, and rehearsals were “really strict”—think eight-hour days with little water and no A/C. Smith felt uneasy about leaving early. Thankfully, his manager made the decision for him: “You better get your ass to that audition,” Smith quotes, laughing.
That first day had him meeting with casting director Victoria Thomas; the second is when he auditioned for Bigelow. It was fast, loose, and unscripted: Smith and 10 to 12 other actors were told to react after a cop bursts in the room and throws them to the wall. The exercise echoed the film’s own improvisatory feel; while shooting, actors would get new scripts each day and largely be kept in the dark about what was coming next.
Smith empathizes with those who feel that Bigelow, as a white woman, shouldn’t have made Detroit—but he also says that in filming the material this way, she did justice to the story of the Algiers.
“The way black people feel, especially, is if you’re going to tell a black story, let it come from a real place,” he says. “But the [reason] that I applaud Kathryn is because she didn’t try to do too much. . . . She trusted a bunch of young actors to tell this story for millions of people without really giving us direction, and letting us find it ourselves.” Smith says that the set’s kineticism and creative freedom prompted one question: “Damn, what do we got to get into next?”
The same can be asked of the actor’s rising career. Looking ahead, Smith envisions staying as dedicated to his first love, music, as he does to acting; he cites another Smith, Will, as a particular inspiration. (“I used to watch Fresh Prince all the time,” he says. “I knew that I could do that.”) No matter what’s next, though, Smith says after working on Detroit, his goal is to continue to pursue social service through his work.
“[Detroit] has put a fire behind me to get more to talking about the politics of everything, because we see where the problem is: it’s in our justice system,” he says. He especially hopes the film will “give solace and peace” to the victims’ surviving families after 50 years of heartache. “Carl Cooper, Fred Temple, and Aubrey Pollard, bless their hearts, their parents never got a chance to say to millions of people, ‘My kid was murdered in cold blood and nothing happened to the guy that murdered him.’ So this is the time where we can say it for them, and that feels good.”
All Credit Goes To This Website: Source link