John Boyega wants you to wake up.

The “Force Awak­ens” star gets real with Kathryn Bigelow’s new docu­d­rama “Detroit.”

Metro USA (Boston) - - FRONT PAGE - MATT PRIGGE @mattprigge

If you’re a se­ri­ous ac­tor, you do what John Boyega has done: You make a “Star Wars” movie, then you star in a dark and gritty drama that speaks to real-world ills. That said, when the young “Force Awak­ens” ac­tor, 25, found him­self on the set of “Detroit” — Kathryn Bigelow’s ac­count of the 1967 Detroit riot, which lasted five days and saw the racially-torn city turned into a war zone, com­plete with the Na­tional Guard stomp­ing around — he saw that not ev­ery­thing was dif­fer­ent.

“It seemed small un­til I saw tanks rolling through the street,” Boyega says.

The riot, which Boyega prefers to call a “re­bel­lion,” be­gan when re­la­tions between the low-in­come black pop­u­lace and the mostly white (and very ag­gres­sive) po­lice force came to log­ger­heads. The bulk of “Detroit” ze­roes in on one episode: when, on day three, white cops went to in­ves­ti­gate a pos­si­ble (and, as it were, er­ro­neous) shoot­ing at the run-down Al­giers Mo­tel. They rounded up 12 sus­pects — 10 black, two white — and phys­i­cally and men­tally tor­tured them. When they left, they’d killed three in­no­cent peo­ple.

Boyega plays Melvin Diss­mukes, a se­cu­rity guard who found him­self tag­ging along with the po­lice. At first he tried to help, think­ing the pres­ence of a black author­ity fig­ure would mol­lify the cops’ rage. He was wrong.

“Diss­mukes re­ally em­bod­ies the com­plex­i­ties of this story,” Boyega says. “He didn’t be­long to any par­tic­u­lar side. He was caught in the mid­dle of it. He was try­ing as much as pos­si­ble to bal­ance ev­ery­thing out. That’s a hard role to play as one man in­volved in such a sit­u­a­tion.”

The cops were ac­quit­ted of all charges — far from the only chill­ingly thing it has in com­mon with to­day’s head­lines. Diss­mukes, whom Boyega spoke with dur­ing film­ing, was seen by some mem­bers of the black com­mu­nity as be­ing in league with the of­fi­cers.

“He told me about be­ing called an ‘Uncle Tom’ be­cause he was in­volved in the sit­u­a­tion,” Boyega says. “Peo­ple said, ‘Why didn’t you do more? Why didn’t you stand up for your­self?’ It’s very, very easy, when you’re look­ing at the re­bel­lion from the out­side-in, to say that. We’d all want to be the su­per­hero in that sit­u­a­tion. That’s not how life goes. Ev­ery­body has some­thing to say un­til it goes down. It was a very scary sit­u­a­tion, and he tried his best.”

Boyega grew up in the Peck­ham dis­trict of South Lon­don. He never had the kind of fraught re­la­tion­ship with cops, not the way you see in “Detroit” or in parts of Amer­ica.

“It doesn’t feel like I’ve been tar­geted in any way. So my per­spec­tive is very dif­fer­ent,” Boyega says. Still, he has come of age dur­ing the 2011 Lon­don riot. “That was based on the same kind of so­cial un­rest peo­ple felt back then. It’s in­ter­est­ing to see that in this film — to show that when the bal­ance between civil­ians and law en­force­ment is not com­pletely clear, you can make peo­ple feel very tense. That’s the kind of world Diss­mukes was liv­ing in.”

For Boyega, “Detroit” isn’t only about Detroit in 1967, or about Amer­ica right now.

“The slo­gan to ‘Detroit’ is ‘It’s time we knew.’ For me, that re­flects on the many other sto­ries peo­ple don’t know about,” ex­plains Boyega. “It’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand that all over the world, race re­la­tions is an issue — even in places you wouldn’t ex­pect that to hap­pen. In In­dia, it’s an issue. Same with Brazil. It’s in­ter­est­ing to see how that hasn’t gone away. And it’s been so long since it hap­pened.”


John Boyega plays Melvin Diss­mukes, a se­cu­rity guard who wit­nessed a hor­rific racial in­ci­dent in 1967, in “Detroit,” in the­aters Friday.


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