Detroit Free Press // ‘Detroit’ movie’s themes depicted in powerful murals by local artists

Detroit Free Press // ‘Detroit’ movie’s themes depicted in powerful murals by local artists

The mural on Congress across from Cobo Center in Detroit depicts two somber young African-American men. Behind them are smaller scenes of a crowd in motion, a tank and the silhouettes of cops facing off against a group of citizens.

“I really wanted to paint it so you could feel the discomfort,” says Detroit artist Sydney G. James, who also hopes to convey the impact the turbulent summer of 1967 had on the people who lived through it.

“I really wanted to illustrate the terror that police and the military brought to this city. That was an important thing to relate: The citizens were terrorized.”

The artwork depicts the characters played by actors Algee Smith and Jacob Latimore in “Detroit,” the upcoming movie about Detroit’s 1967 unrest from Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow.

It’s one of several outdoor murals by local artists with themes inspired by “Detroit,” which is having its world premiere July 25 at the Fox Theatre and opens nationally Aug. 4.

Four artists — James, Nic Notion, Marlo Broughton and Jaclyn Schanes, who goes by Jacx — are participating in the project, which includes roughly a half-dozen murals.

While “Detroit” movie billboards will appear across the country, the Motor City is getting these special artworks, too. It’s part of the movie’s effort to reach out and have a dialogue with people in the real-life, modern-day Detroit.

Read more: ‘Detroit’ world premiere will be at the Fox Theatre

There is one hand-painted mural by Notion. It was completed Sunday at Eastern Market. The rest are vinyl wall-scapes, or essentially, large-scale prints of the original art. They were scheduled to be installed early next week, but began popping up this week.

Playground Detroit, a creative agency and gallery, was asked to coordinate the project by Annapurna Pictures, which is producing and distributing “Detroit.” The time line was short. Serious planning began in June, and a preview screening of the movie was held a couple of weeks ago for the artists.

“We always like to work with people who are helping support the creative economy in the city,” says Paulina Petkoski, who co-founded Playground Detroit with Samantha Bankle Schefman.

Petkoski says Annapurna Pictures was seeking emerging artists with strong ties to Detroit. The idea fits in with Annapurna’s efforts to communicate with civic and community groups involved in 50-year commemorations of the 1967 riot. It is partnering with the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Detroit Historical Society and other local organizations on the world premiere and related events.

Public art as promotion is becoming popular in places with strong creative communities. It’s an eye-catching alternative to traditional outdoor advertising, according to Petkoski.

“Just doing it in a fresh, unexpected way and mixing national brands with local talent (is) something people are very interested in,” Petkoski says. Playground Detroit has worked with Lululemon’s location at the Somerset Collection in Troy on mural and artwork installations. Currently, the work of Detroit artist and musician Sheefy McFly is featured at the store.

The bold Eastern Market mural is Notion’s variation on a painting he did with the silhouette of a man in contemporary clothing standing on a beat-up Mercedes. It was featured in his 2015 solo show titled “Etiquette.”

Notion’s “Detroit” version evokes 1967 with a silhouette based on the real-life moment when U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Detroit, then serving his second term, stood on a car with a megaphone and urged a crowd to stop the violence fueled by decades of systemic racism.

The automobile in Notion’s mural is based on a ’67 Dodge Coronet, a model used back then as a police cruiser.

Notion says he grew up hearing stories about the unrest from his father and other relatives. While he leaves it up to viewers to find their own message from the painting, he says, “I hope that they can take the fact that it’s a celebration of freedom. It’s up to us to harness that and to take great care of our freedom and to always strive for more for the future.”

James also sees the past and the present in her mural on Congress Street.

“I want people to not only reflect on ’67 and the effect it had and still has on the city and this county. I want them to reflect on it and see how the life we live is cyclical. … We have to right our wrongs. We have to learn from our mistakes and what transpired.”

Contact Julie Hinds: 313-222-6427 or

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