Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 11, 2017 12:30 pm 
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A look at the Oakland police

Peter Nicks provided an immersive picture of Oakland, California's Highland Hospital emergency room in his previous documentary, The Waiting Room (SFIFF 2012). This time he takes on a tougher and more controversial subject: the police (Oakland again) and their relations with the public. He's embedded again, but with the police department and even the police academy, with some lively footage of action in the streets. The topic could not be more timely in post-Ferguson America. A police spokesman even says the demonstrations in solidarity with Ferguson went on longer in Oakland than in Missouri. Are the police doing their job? Maybe Nicks can find out. Unfortunately, this is not the satisfying, warmly humanistic film The Waiting Room was. Perhaps it couldn't be. But perhaps this was a project that, unlike the earlier one, was in some aspects doomed.

We see the (predominantly white) police academy being lectured by African Americans on dealing with the black community, giving them some insight into how they are seen from outside. When a black woman has been in a car accident and her brother becomes threatening, we see young cop Joe Cairo diffuse the volatile situation in a patient, professional manner. We also see body camera footage shown the public in disputed cases where black men were attacked or killed by police. It's hard to make any sense of these shaky keyhole images, though, and at some key moments, the cameras turn out to have been off. In any case, the black community distrusts the police, and think the body cam footage was edited. A police shooting where the cameras were off turns out to involve Joe Cairo, the "good cop" of the earlier sequence.

What is clear from the police point of view is that in the worst street situations, they are often confronted by individuals who are out of control, angry, violent, desperate, and under the influence, and of course, may be armed. And the cops may be worn down when they enter the fray. The chief points out they are understaffed and overworked, continually going longer-than-normal days without a lunch break. Admitting this is the chief's way of taking flack, not pretending the OPD is doing a perfect job. (Could monies that are going to build up equipment be diverted to more hires?)

Many have commended the filmmaker's even handed approach in The Force. This is not propaganda. But it's not an exposé either. He doesn't have that kind of access, and it's hard to imagine how he could have. In fact when the going gets tough and the OPD starts to disintegrate due to a prostitution and sex scandal, the access slips away. When Nicks starts out, the Oakland police have already been under federal supervision for eleven years due to multiple cases of misconduct . New police chief Sean Whent has been in office for a year. When things get rough for Whent, whose PR and damage control gets considerable footage for a while, and he is forced out after less than two years, with a quick string of replacements, Nicks' previously excellent access has faded and he is relying on footage of press conferences.

Nicks shows the same kind of patience and observational neutrality he had in The Waiting Room, applying it to very different material. However, this is too much of a moving target. Come to think of it, one wouldn't really speak of his being "embedded" at Highland Hospital. Patients and medical staff would never be seen as opposing camps - as cops and the poor black community so often are. What was needed here, one might argue, isn't a film like this, but long-term investigative journalism that delves deeply into both sides of the community, the "government" side, as Whent explains to rookie cops that the police department essentially is, and the "community" side, the poor minority community that bears the brunt of police violence.

It's impossible to watch The Force (and isn't the choice of that word as the title itself a bit propagandistic, after all?) without thinking of Folayan and Davis' fiery recent movie Whose Streets?, about the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and from the African American point of view, afer the killing of black teenager Mike Brown by the white cop Darren Wilson, who was not indicted. This film is infuriating for some, no doubt. But biased as it is, it's satisfying for many of us - because it is a cry of protest and an expression of what the Black Lives Matter movement means. It's biased. But it's convincing. Nicks shows that Oakland police are mostly trying to do their jobs and not beat up on people. But it's not as deep a look into the American dilemma as Whose Streets?.

The Force, 80 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2017; shown at perhaps a dozen festivals including True/False, San Francisco, Seattle, and BAMcinemafest. It won 2 festival awards and 3 award nominations. Limited release starts in the Bay Area at the Embarcadero, Grand Lake and California Theaters in San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley respectively on Fri., 15 Sept. 2017, 22 Sept. 2017 in NYC.

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