Peter Nicks' documentary feature The Force takes an intimate and humanizing look at the Oakland Police Department as it undergoes federally mandated reforms in front of an increasingly distrustful public. The film begins shortly after the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown case that sparked demonstrations in Ferguson, in the wake of nationwide protests against police brutality. The situation captured by Nicks' cameras in Oakland from 2014 to 2016 aptly represents the fraught relationship between police and citizens in cities all over the country, and it makes for mesmerizing and, at times, challenging cinema. (This is the second installment of a three-part series. The Waiting Room (2012) offered a look inside Oakland's overrun hospitals.)
The film's early going spends a lot of time with police chief Sean Whent, the latest in a string of chiefs tasked with dismantling the department's "blue wall of silence," i.e., the long-standing tradition of officers covering up and not reporting fellow officers' misconduct. We see Whent delivering what seems like a promising lecture to classrooms of new cadets about the tremendous responsibility they have as representatives of the state in a country with a rich tradition of distrusting the government. The officers' pressed uniforms, stoic faces and military postures suggest an audience that's taking these lectures to heart, but are they, really?
The department has a real battle on its hands, what with a crippling shortage of officers and decades of earned mistrust, particularly among poor people and minorities. In one sequence, we see a community activist offering a lesson on police brutality in America, and how that history affects cultural perceptions today: "The past stole your identity and ran up an incredibly high bill. And everything that we do is either going to help run that bill up, or it's going to bring that bill down." On top of true reform, police departments across America have a massive public relations problem to solve.
- The Force is the second documentary in a three-part series from filmmaker Peter Nicks.
You don't need me to tritely remind you that we live in a polarized time in America. Most everyone will come to this film with their own beliefs and agendas about the police, and our daily media tend to butter their bread affirming such pre-packaged narratives. It's the documentarian's job to step back and look at the situation from angles we aren't always privy to. For example, we see in the film a chaotic incident unfold that involves lethal force exerted by officers on black victims, and the media frenzy that follows. Was the victim shot in the back while running away, or was he an actual threat to officers? Up until this point in history, most people have had little choice but to take the cops' word as gospel. At least now we can check the body cameras the cops are required to wear.
The film undergoes a pivotal and somewhat abrupt tonal shift in the final act, when the department erupts in a damning sex scandal. Things seemed to be going so well and then—whoops—dozens of officers are suddenly implicated in the sex trafficking of a minor, and maybe Chief Whent didn't handle it as professionally as he could have? From there, we get a flurry of press conferences with a very unhappy mayor at the helm. When she stands before the press and accuses the entire department of a "disgusting, toxic, macho culture," it starts to feel like finally, maybe, we're getting somewhere.
The Force screens at the MCT Center for Performing Arts as part of the Big Sky Film Series Thu., June 29, at 8 PM. Free.