When many of us were introduced to actor and singer Algee Smith, he was portraying our former crush, Ralph Tresvant, in The New Edition Story. He was two-stepping and singing his heart out in the hit BET film, and we were sold from there on his talent. But we’re seeing a much different side of the star in his newest project, Detroit, which comes out on Friday.
The movie, directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow, is about the harrowing Algiers Motel incident, with the Detroit riots as the backdrop. The incident at the Algiers Motel involved the death of three teenage men, all Black, as well as the beating of nine others, including two White females, by the Detroit Police Department and involving the Michigan State Police, Michigan Army National Guard and a private security guard. Smith plays Larry Reed, a former member of The Dramatics, who after being beaten during the incident has the direction of his life changed forever. We talked to Smith about taking on his most emotional role yet, meeting the man who lived through it and what he thinks about the controversy surrounding both Bigelow’s involvement in the film, and the perceived lack of Black women in the project.
MadameNoire: We’ve seen you go from The New Edition Story to Detroit and that’s a very big contrast in terms of projects. So how did you go from that project to this very important story, getting to play Larry Reed of The Dramatics?
Algee Smith: I think it was helpful being able to come off New Edition and already playing a real-life character because it gives you a little preparation. But the funny thing is, when I got the role of Larry, unlike Ralph, I didn’t get to meet Larry until the end of shooting the whole movie. So it was pretty much Kathryn just trusting her actors with what she saw in the audition room and running with it. But it definitely helped coming off of New Edition, being able to have the mindset of portraying a real-life person.
Did you go after this role because of the fact that this is a singing opportunity or are you just open to any acting opportunities?
I’m open to anything that pretty much challenges me. With this one, I didn’t know I was singing in this one at first when I got the audition. It was just the history behind it. I didn’t know a lot about it, I just knew who was involved and I knew pretty much a little bit of the premise of the story. So I didn’t know it was musically involved until we really dived into production.
So you said you didn’t know about the Algiers Motel incident before auditioning for this part?
Not at all. I knew briefly about the riots in Detroit, but I had no clue about the Algiers incident.
This film is obviously a lot about race as well as police violence. Have you had any uncomfortable experiences with police? If so, how did that inform your role?
Personally? Not to that degree. Not anything close to what we see these characters go through in this film and what they had to go through in real life. I haven’t been through anything like that. But I think it’s normal, especially as a Black man in America, to be harassed in a certain way, talked to in a certain way. Even just riding down the street and you see a police officer, there is an uneasy feeling that you get. But I haven’t went through anything that deep to that degree.
How hard was it for you to shoot that scene when you guys are being held up against the wall by the police? That scene, to watch it, it’s a very drawn-out scene that almost makes you sick because it’s such a sadistic moment. I know Kathryn said there were times between takes when you guys would be exhausted and emotional. So how was it for you shooting that very thorough and daunting scene?
The way you feel watching it was maybe 10 times more of what we felt in there shooting it, and that’s why I feel like it looks and feels so authentic. It was tough to do that. That was the first two weeks of shooting anything in the movie and it was mentally, physically and emotionally draining just having to yell every day for two weeks and being talked to in a certain way. And having to hyperventilate between every take, it was super tough. But we were all there for each other. For instance, Will Poulter, who plays Cross, after every take he was checking on everyone and making sure that even when he was doing his job, that we were still comfortable in between those takes.
Having to shoot that and knowing what that felt like, how was it finally getting the chance to meet Larry Reed who actually went through it?
That was the crazy part for me, which is why I’m glad I met him at the end. When I first met him, he let me feel the crack in his skull. We talked about it for about three hours. But knowing all that he went through, I was just kind of speechless when I first met him. He did a lot of the talking because I really couldn’t even get my questions. It was just like, ‘How are you still…’ He’s still so vibrant and it’s like, how are you still so happy?
This movie, like I said, is about race. However, there has been controversy behind the scenes as well with people upset that Kathryn, a White woman, being the director of this story. People have also had things to say about Black women not being portrayed more prominently in the promotion process of the film. What do you think about these problems people seem to have with the project?
First, I feel like the fact that Kathryn is doing this story — if you’ve seen The Hurt Locker and you’ve seen Zero Dark Thirty, we see what Kathryn’s storytelling is like. We see that she holds no punches and she gets as close to the facts as she possibly can. And so I feel with a director like that, no matter what skin color you are, as long as you can portray the story in the right way, I don’t feel like any other thing matters. If you can give peace and solace to those people who actually went through this, then the conversation shouldn’t matter about who directed it.
As far as the second part, I’ve been seeing a lot of that as well. People online are like, ‘Where are the Black women? The Black women aren’t present!’ But if you watch the film you will see that Black women are very much present and they’re strong. For instance, when Aubrey Pollard dies, we see how strong the grandmother is for the father. We see that strong Black woman and we see how strong she is even in the courtroom. It’s constantly put in there, even though it’s quick. Every Black woman that’s represented in the film is strong. There’s not a weak Black woman. Even Aubrey Pollard’s mother, when she’s walking out of the court and she’s asked how it feels to lose a son, she’s still strong. Even the Black woman who came to check on Leon at the beginning of the movie when he was under the car bleeding out, she was strong. The presence of Black women in this film is strong. I don’t think they lack in that part at all. And actually, to piggyback off of that, this is a story about the facts and what actually went on in the hotel. That’s what it’s centered on. It’s not trying to put anyone out, it’s just showing what actually happened.
You’ve played Ralph Tresvant, you’ve worked with Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow and you’ve even been in a Disney movie [laughs]. Your work has been all over the board, so what’s next for you?
I hope to keep getting projects that actually inspire me, first, to want to work on it. But at the same time, projects that are telling truth and make people think deeper than they would normally think. As far as what I’m working on now, I just put out an EP at the top of this year and it’s doing pretty good. Went to number 12 on the iTunes chart without any major promotion, just from the fans, so that’s good. And I’ve been picking out the visuals for that. I start production on another film that I can’t really talk about right now but I start it in a couple of weeks. So really, my game plan is to keep hashing out music and acting and make my mark in both of those on the same level. Not have the acting outweigh the music or the music outweigh the acting. So that’s what I’m working towards right now.
Detroit will be widely released in theaters on August 4.