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“It’s a story that’s necessary, especially for young people,” said the British actor John Boyega as we sat down at the Savannah Film Festival in early November, in front of a packed crowd at the Lucas Theatre, and began discussing Kathryn Bigelow‘s Detroit, a pressure-cooker of a film about the 1967 Detroit riot that he “squeezed in” between 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the forthcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which hits theaters on Dec. 15.
“I wanted to be a part of a movie that explores the issues of race in a very factual but also very dramatic way,” explained the 25-year-old (who was at the fest to receive its Vanguard Award), noting that Detroit also helps to historically contextualize the issues of police brutality that persist to this day. “In order to cure something, you need to know what the root is, and this film helps with that conversation.” He added, “You can watch something and be entertained, but it’s also important in our day-to-day lives to also take a little something from it.”
Boyega auditioned for the part of Melvin Dismukes, a soft-spoken security guard who was an observer and tried to defuse the scene as white cops terrorized black and white youths at the Algiers Motel on the night of July 25 going into July 26, 1967, probably preventing them from abusing their power even further. To play the part, Boyega said, he spoke with Dismukes, who still lives in Detroit, and also studied his specific accent and register of voice. For his efforts, he is currently at the center of best supporting actor Oscar buzz.
Despite having a few Star Wars films on his resume, Boyega considers Detroit to be his most important project yet. He has come a long way over the last few years. “When I was auditioning for Star Wars, I was still at home with my parents [living upstairs from them],” he acknowledged, by way of explaining the name of his production company, UpperRoom Entertainment Limited, which is now among the companies producing Pacific Rim: Uprising, in which he will star.
Though Boyega is restricted in what he can say about The Last Jedi, which he shot over a year ago under the direction of Rian Johnson, he did emphasize that he is “super-excited” about the film: “I love it, it’s fantastic, I can’t wait — you guys are gonna love it!” He further teased, “The story’s better, it’s darker, Rian Johnson is just — you know when a director is taking new risks,” adding, “The great thing about this movie is it’s kind of split into two. You know, Rey is doing her Jedi stuff, the Resistance is on its last legs and General Leia — she is the only hope. It’s historical. It’s heroic. There’s some shocking moments as it pertains to her, specifically.”
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