Behind The Scenes: A local editor helped Kathryn Bigelow create “Detroit.”
David Zeman was born in Detroit, where his family once owned Zeman’s Bakery on Twelfth Street.
Almost 50 years after the July 1967 civil disorder, Zeman, 58, accepted an assignment to research the people and events that were central to the violent Algiers Motel incident during that unrest. His clients were the production team for the movie Detroit — director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who have won multiple awards for their previous movies The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty.
This film, in theaters now, is not a documentary but is an intense depiction of police racism and brutality resulting in the killings of three unarmed young African American men, as well as the beatings of other guests at the Algiers Motel on the night of July 25-26. John Hersey wrote a well-known book about the incident but the moviemakers were unable to obtain film rights for it.
Zeman, senior editor of Bridge magazine, was a logical choice because of his extensive journalistic expertise and knowledge of Detroit. He had led a reporting team at the Detroit Free Press that won a Pulitzer Prize and additional awards for coverage of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and other major investigative stories.
Zeman describes below the experience of collecting in-depth information that helped the moviemakers create realistic portrayals of people and events for the film.
JN: What was the nature of your research?
DZ: Most of the research was secondary, using the Walter Reuther Library at Wayne State University and the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library Museum, as well as the archives of some of the
judges. We had 2 feet of documents.
We basically put together a template of the people involved: hotel [Algiers Motel] guests, the Dramatics [the musical group whose members were brutalized there by police], police officials and retired cops, and contacted them. The team asked basic questions and then let them talk so they could tell their story as they remember it.
We found Melvin Dismukes, the African American security guard in the movie, Julie Ann Hysell [one of the motel guests] and Larry Reed, the Elgee Smith character, and connected them with the screenwriters.
Only one of the police officers, David Sinak, is still alive. All of the cops were very young and the people in the motel were teenagers. The police officers claimed that two of the young men who were killed were trying to grab their guns. After the incident, the two white girls in the motel were protected by Nate Conyers, John Conyers’ brother, as they were thought to be in danger as potential witnesses against the police.
JN: Did you interact with Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal?
DZ: We met with Mark Boal who had a lot of questions. He was interested in the music angle with Larry Reed.
JN: Why wasn’t the movie filmed in Detroit?
DZ: Michigan no longer offered incentives for movies to be produced here and Massachusetts had film credits. Also, the set people couldn’t find the buildings they wanted in Detroit. [The Algiers Motel and its annex had been leveled.] The scene at Motown [a recording tryout for the Dramatics] was filmed here. I was invited to bring my daughter, Leah, to that scene and met Bigelow there. •
Norman L. Lippitt, the lawyer who represented the police officers charged in the Algiers Motel cases, also provided his recollections to the movie’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, and her team. Lippitt, now 81 and still practicing law, was contacted by a film researcher and subsequently met for several hours with Bigelow and later Matthew Budman, one of the film’s producers, in early 2016.
The moviemakers took photos of Lippitt’s extensive newspaper clippings of the Algiers’ criminal proceedings, saved by his mother 50 years ago. Lippitt was only 31 at the time but says he had already had some successes representing other members of the Detroit Police Officers Association (DPOA). He continued as their lawyer for 18 years until being named to the Oakland County bench by Gov. James Blanchard. After that, he returned to private practice but gave up criminal defense work.
Lippitt says he still encounters Detroit police officers and retirees who have heard of him and appreciate his work. “I’m a hero to this day for the police officers,” he says. Lippitt points out that he has successfully defended African American police officers, who are also grateful to him. Looking back on the week of July 23, 1967, he says, “There were wrongdoers among the police and community members during the insurrection or riot.” Lippitt arranged a private showing of Detroit for his law firm, Lippitt, O’Keefe, Gornbein PLLC on Aug. 9. An extensive interview about his experiences defending the police officers charged in the Algiers Motel incident is available at detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/440.
While three white police officers and the African American security guard were charged criminally for alleged offenses that night, some cases were dropped and the defendants were acquitted in others. Lippitt was able to have the murder trial moved from Detroit to Mason, Mich.; all of the jury members were white. •