Detroit's racist themes are sadly relevant to this day

When he agreed to appear as a racist cop in the tale of 1967 in Detroit,
Will Poulter had no idea how prescient the film would feel today, writes Esther McCarthy

IT SEEMS eerily fitting that Will Poulter is talking about his latest role just days after the shocking events at Charlottesville in the US.

In Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, which dramatically brings to life events surrounding the riots in the city in 1967, Poulter plays the most brutal character he’s ever brought to screen.

Krauss is a white cop who inflicts horrific revenge on a group of African/American youths he’s
convinced shot at his squad. All involved in the film were determined that it would resonate today (the US pre-election campaign was in full swing during production) but nobody could have guessed how much.

“We were aware of the unfortunate relevance of this story to what had been going on, because there had been a recent spike in cases of police criminality, in innocent African/American people being killed by the police,” Poulter tells me.

“So we were very aware of the relevance while shooting. But I don’t think any of us could have anticipated that race relations in America would be as fractious as they are now. Or that President Trump would be as irresponsible and disappointing as he has been in response to these recent events.”

NASTY CHARACTER

Krauss is a composite character based on the accounts and testimonies of those who were present in Detroit. Much of the film centres on events at the Algiers Motel, where several young people — two white females and ten black males — were subjected to violence and humiliation by police.

The character he plays is so brutal that Poulter, initially, wrestled with understanding his mindset.

“It’s really
interesting, the only sort of vague parallel I could see to exist between him and me was the fact that he was a white male. That was really it.
Psychologically speaking, there was nothing that I could relate to.

“I think as human beings we all have a degree of righteousness. I think, regardless of how heinous or misguided or ignorant we are, that we all seek to do what we think is right.

“That was a frightening thing to learn about Krauss, and the racist rhetoric, is that many of the individuals who are racist, white supremacists, they wholeheartedly believe that they are right.

“For me it was about embracing that ignorance and, in the moments that I was playing Krauss, trying to convince myself that I was doing the right thing. And assuming that the young African/American men that I was interacting with were guilty.

“That was one of the most dangerous facets of the racist rhetoric, the presumption of guilt when it comes to interacting with people of colour.

“There’s no sign of empathy. There isn’t any remorse. I think the only sort of doubt he has is when his plan isn’t going exactly as he hoped and the prospect that he might be found guilty of something, that’s the only time that he ever really shows
remorse or panic.

“And that’s another facet of white privilege, that you have a natural protection from guilt, a presumption of innocence. And that’s amplified by the fact that he’s a police officer. That notion of the blue code of silence being backed up indefinitely by his fellow police officers regardless of what he does. There’s an element of that which still exists today.”

Will Poulter in a scene from Detroit.

REAL LIFE

For the affable and friendly Londoner, who had to play at repeatedly assaulting, terrifying and humiliating the cast he had befriended on set, filming was a difficult experience.

“It was emotionally draining,
incredibly intense and at times
virtually unbearable. But I’m always kind of reluctant to talk too much about the difficulties I faced, because they don’t even come close to how
arduous it was for the individuals playing the victims. They were also representing real-life individuals, some of who are alive today, and some of who were present on set.”

Among those was Julie Ann, one of two young white women who had befriended the black men, much to the chagrin of the police.

“She was actually present on set during most of the Algiers Motel incident and the shooting of those scenes. We spoke closely with her in the lead-up to the shooting of those scenes and about the project in general.

She was incredibly brave and generous with her anecdotes. Reliving that story must have been very difficult for her but she exercised an unbelievable amount of bravery in being present on set and she was an invaluable asset to us while shooting.”

INSPIRING TEACHER

John Boyega, Kathryn Bigelow and Will Poulter at one of the premieres.

The son of a nurse and a professor of cardiology, Poulter found at school that he wasn’t as academic as other family members and didn’t naturally gravitate towards science-based subjects. Drama, he says, was genuinely the only thing he enjoyed or felt comfortable doing.

His drama teacher, Laura Lawson, put the 14-year-old forward for the wonderful Son of Rambo, interrupting his English class by tapping on the window and mouthing the word: “audition”. “It got me out of the lesson and then got me out of school for eight weeks,” he laughs.

“It was the start of a very fortunate and enjoyable journey for me. I always have her to thank for that. She was also the creator of School for Comedy. I wouldn’t have a career if it wasn’t for Laura.”

He has chosen wisely ever since, that distinctive face lending itself to roles in movies like The Revenant and gritty Irish drama Glassland.

Set in Tallaght, Poulter nailed not only the Dublin accent but the swagger, I tell him. He seems genuinely pleased.

“Oh bless you! I had a lot of help from Jack Reynor and Emmet Kirwan. They were very patient with me. I lived in Tallaght for a week prior to shooting which helped massively. I went around the area and spoke to a lot of people, so that was really helpful. It was one of the best shooting experiences of my life. I fell in love with Dublin and the people. I actually spent New Year’s there and might be coming back this year. I really hope I get to do an Irish film again and maybe take a crack at

another accent!”

Indeed, he’s currently working in the UK with two of cinema’s best-known Irishmen, director Lenny
Abrahamson and actor Domhnall Gleeson, on The Little Stranger, a ghost story adapted from the novel.

“I’m working with one of the best directors in the world in the shape of Lenny Abrahamson and I feel very lucky in that respect. I’m about half way through at the moment.”

Detroit is released on Friday

DETROIT is out NOW across America. @detroitmovie

A post shared by Will Poulter (@willpoulter) on


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