You’ve seen Laz braving the world of grit and crime on TV and working through love on the big screen. But do not put him in a box. Do not limit him to any one genre. His versatility doesn’t allow for it. His latest role in the critically-acclaimed film Detroit, directed by Kathryn Bigelow settles that.
Laz delivers a believably heroic performance as Congressman John Conyers in this intricately historic account of the Algiers Motel murders during the 1967 Detroit Rebellion. SHEEN caught up with Laz to discuss his role and activism efforts toward improving relations between citizens and law enforcement. Welcome to the conversation.
Congrats on the DETROIT movie. That was a huge undertaking. Talk about filming a real-life event.
Well first of all I felt tremendously responsible for telling the truth of what people actually experienced during that incident. Especially since this is not something that happened 100 years ago. This happened 50 years ago and the people who actually went through the Detroit Rebellion are still with us. They are still alive and they still remember the event. It was very interesting because even when I went to the premier, there was an event at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit and there was a lady who was at the Algier’s Motel the night that it happened. There were just so many people who experienced that. It was really about us tapping into what was going on at the time and telling the truth. I felt so responsible to this story and to the people who lived through it because after 50 years, this story had not been told. So that sums up the level of responsibility that we as artists have which is to educate people about a very important part of our American history (it was not just black history) and then just to do right by the story.
Talk about the multiple tragedies we experience now with police relations and black men, but now with the onset of black women who experience brutality.
Well let me tell you something. I think the fact that 50 years later we are still having this conversation and it’s relevant to the point where if we just change the clothes and change the music it could be a story of modern-day times. So there is a systemic problem that has to be discussed. This is not one isolated incident. It’s not one bad cop. It’s not one kid or whoever that acted out and should have listened to orders. It is a bigger issue, a bigger problem and a broader conversation that needs to be had. The system is obviously broken or else it would not happen as frequently and as commonly as it does. So as artists, it’s our responsibility to shine the light on it. You know Martin Luther King, Jr. was called the terrorist. Eventually he was seen as a hero, but at the time it was uncomfortable.
You were a community galvanizer in this film. How does that relate to your present-day efforts toward activism?
I played the role of Congressman John Conyers who is an icon in Detroit and he has been putting in that work for many, many years and he’s still putting in that work at 88 years old. I will in no way compare myself to the work that he does and that he has done, but it basically showed that at the time, people had had enough. They felt as though they’d not been heard in so many years and they finally just said enough is enough. We’re not standing down and the times where we can talk about peace are over. And in order to begin healing, it all starts with first being heard.
The interesting part was that so was the City of Detroit. They felt like they were not being heard. And each time one of these incidents happened, no matter how long or loudly they yelled, screamed and protested, it was falling on deaf ears. At the time, the police department was 95 percent white policing a city where more than 40 percent were black. So there was not a representation of their own people who could deal with them in a more empathetic way. It was people who did not necessarily view them, see them and connect with them the same way they would view one of their own. So that scene was when you had a city who felt like they were not being heard, but they were going to be heard that day.
What did you do to prepare to play the role of John Conyers?
Well because this was a such a brief snippet of Congressman Conyers’ long and extensive life, more than anything my goal was to play his truth of that particular moment. In this moment, it was the crux of his motivation when he stepped out into that very tumultuous scene. The people were going to inevitably burn down their own neighborhood and city. His message was to be heard. He was trying to talk them off the ledge and get them to be heard in a peaceful way. To prepare, I watched a ton of footage of the Congressman. I really wanted to get his speech patterns down, his vocal tones and his intonation. He has a very distinct rhythm when he talks and if you kind of go back in history you find that he spoke that way even when he was young. I tried my best to get that speech pattern down. I wanted people who knew Congressman Conyers to be able to recognize him in my performance.
Reading through the reviews, so many are saying that this move was about the Algier’s Motel murders and not about the Detroit Rebellion.
The title “Detroit” might be a misnomer, but with hearing Kathryn Bigelow explain the way that she shot this film makes a little more sense. She wanted to start with the overall large scenario and she wanted to slowly build. Her goal was to show how this affected the city, the neighborhood, this particular group of people, the Algiers Motel, the musical group Dramatics and the lead singer of the Dramatics to the point where it changed his life completely and he was never the same man again. It was almost like a journey where you start very broad and macro and you work your way in and in and in until you see how police misconduct can affect the entire city all the way down to the individual people.
What are your upcoming projects?
Well I was very excited to get back into doing film. I took a film hiatus because I was doing a TV series for about four seasons. It was two different series back to back. So this last year was like that liberating moment where I was available again and so I was able to do a film with Omar Epps, and Paula Patton. It comes out at the end of this year. The film involves sex trafficking and how there is this underground road of sex trafficking in Northern California that’s never discussed and a lot of people don’t even know that it exists, but it’s right under our noses and it is devastating lives. And it’s interesting because the films that I’ve been working on since I’ve been available to do film again have been like very, very, informative and cause-oriented. I love working on projects that make a difference.
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