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Ben O'Toole
Photograph: Anna KuceraActor Ben O'Toole plays a racist cop in Detroit

The brutality of 'Detroit', and the Aussie actor wading into America's race war
Written by
Nick Dent

It sounds like an oxymoron: Brisbane-born actor Ben O’Toole, 27, has gotten his big break playing a racist, murdering cop in a movie that flopped bigtime at the US box office.

Or to put it another way: Ben O’Toole plays a racist, murdering cop in the new film by Kathryn Bigelow, Oscar-winning director of The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty and the original Point Break.

Or yet another way: Ben O’Toole plays a racist, murdering cop in a movie that is incredibly pertinent to current US politics, and yet has displeased commentators on both sides of the racial divide.

So then, Ben: why is Detroit a commercial failure?   

“I think it’s a combination of things, honestly,” the actor tells Time Out, on the phone from his parents’ home in Samford, Brisbane. “It's a confrontational film, and in America the racial climate is tense, and I understand that people may not be that willing to go and sit down for two and a half hours and be reminded of this situation they’re in.

“Secondly, I know Detroit doesn't want to be reminded of this incident, yet here's Hollywood knocking on the door saying ‘we’re going to have the world premiere of this [movie about a] horrific occurrence in your city.’ ....

“But the main reason is that the film makes people feel uncomfortable. Some people think if they ignore this, it’ll go away, and that's why 50 years later we’re still telling stories like this, because they’re as relevant as ever.”

Scripted by Bigelow’s key collaborator Mark Boal, Detroit is set during the 1967 Detroit riots, which were sparked by a police raid on a nightclub. The focus is upon the Algiers Motel, where three black teenagers died after police, responding to reports of a gunshot, interrogated and brutalised guests at the motel.

Anthony Mackie plays one of the victimised guests, as does Game of Thrones’ Hannah Murray, while John Boyega (The Force Awakens) is a security guard who witnesses the atrocities performed by three white police officers. UK actor Will Poulter (We’re the Millers) plays the ringleader in an astonishingly loathsome performance, and O’Toole portrays one of his offsiders, whose weak will results in the film’s most shocking act.

O’Toole is convincing in the part, but the fact he and Poulter are not Americans is telling. Did US actors shun these roles? “There are a number of actors who could've played them,” O’Toole agrees. “I can only speculate on why Kathryn and the team wanted to go foreign, and I just think that we could do it a little more unapologetically. It’s not necessarily our immediate, direct history. Not to say that racism isn’t a part of everybody’s history, but for this particular event, it was a way to ensure that people could play these parts without an agenda, and not pull any punches.”

Bigelow, one of the most talented action directors in the business, kept three cameras running during the film’s hyper-tense scenes inside the motel to keep the footage spontaneous. “We never knew when the camera was on us, so we were free to sort of really live and breathe some of these moments. Kathryn said to me, ‘Ben, you don’t have to do a hell of a lot. Just think the thoughts, and I’ll do the rest.’ There are moments I didn’t even realise I was on camera, and I'm like, oh man, she's so right, if I was doing anything else it'd be too much, it'd be cartoonish...

“I haven't been in this game that long, I consider myself incredibly blessed to work with someone of her calibre.”

You might know Ben O’Toole from Nine’s series Love Child, or perhaps as one of Russell Crowe’s MIA sons in The Water Diviner. A few days after speaking to Time Out, he was cast opposite Monica Bellucci in sci-fi horror film Nekromancer, to be shot in Sydney.

He was sleeping on his brother’s couch in Sydney when his agent in America called letting him know the Detroit part was his. “I remember getting that phone call and being like, ‘this doesn't happen to somebody like me.’” The role has led to a major part in an upcoming Afghanistan war film alongside Chris Hemsworth, as well as in an under-wraps local production.

Detroit has had plenty of five-star reviews but the praise has been far from unanimous. Bigelow has come under fire for telling the story through her “white gaze”, and the “fetishisation of violence on black male bodies”. What is O’Toole’s take on such criticisms?

“The challenge was ‘what right do you have as a white woman to tell this story’, and Kathryn’s response was, ‘I have no right to tell this story, but I have the power to tell this story, and this is a story that does need to be told.’ ….There are so many Americans that have no idea that this happened, and she used her position to build awareness. In a perfect world, OK, yes, maybe it wouldn’t be Kathryn who told the story, but she’s an amazing filmmaker, and people will go and see this film purely because they're fans of hers.”

Watching Detroit is a profoundly discomforting experience given the ongoing racial tensions in the US, with the president being unwilling to condemn neo-Nazis and waging a Twitter war against NFL players taking the knee. O’Toole finds the film’s relevance “unbelievable”, noting that the white nationalist rally in Charleston occurred just days after the film’s US release. And he cautions against assuming it’s a problem safely confined to the States.

“I mean, it wasn't until the ’60s that our Indigenous population was considered human above flora and fauna! Man, that was yesterday! If people could walk away from this film, no matter where you are in the world, with a greater sense of empathy, then I think the film’s done its job. Even if somebody walks out and like, ‘Fuck, I didn't know that happened,’ then great, that’s all we can ask.”

Detroit opens Thu Nov 9.

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