Film Review: The Force

This deeply disturbing documentary, from the talented young filmmaker of The Waiting Room, is about the Oakland Police Department, under federal oversight for the last 14 years.
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The Oakland Police Department in Oakland, California, has been under federal oversight since 2003, for police misconduct and civil-rights abuses. That is longer than the Justice Department’s 12-year oversight of the neighboring Los Angeles Police Department for similarly heinous practices. In August 2016, the East Bay Express, a local paper in Oakland, reported that 90 residents had been shot by police since 2000, 74% of them African-Americans. Filmmaker Peter Nicks, who lives in that city, received permission to film at the OPD in 2014, and spent the next two years making The Force, his latest documentary. Within weeks of the start of production, Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, and demonstrators took to the streets of Oakland.

Historians and baby boomers will recall that the Oakland Police Department inspired the founding of the Black Panthers. Members of that radical civil-rights group famously patrolled the city’s African-American neighborhoods beginning in the mid-1960s, in order to prevent police brutality. What began as a local issue quickly grew into a national dialogue that intensified in 1968, after the Chicago Democratic National Convention, during which police used excessive force against demonstrators.

Nicks did not gain extraordinary access to the OPD for the making of The Force, yet his keen eye for the picture that is worth a thousand words results in a documentary that is at once about a police department, a city and, by extension, a nation on the brink of dissolution. While the filmmaker, who was also the cinematographer on the project, said at Sundance that his documentary reserved judgment on the department, his footage belies that claim, as does his title for the documentary. “The Force” recalls both the use of the noun in the tautological phrase “police force,” and refers to the transitive verb, to force. That renders the title a double entendre that emphasizes violent action, the use of force that lies at the core of “policing,” of maintaining, controlling and ensuring civil order. Nicks illustrates this quality in the imminent violence that pervades nearly every frame of the documentary.

Nicks’ previous documentary, The Waiting Room (2012), chronicled one day at Highland, a public hospital in Oakland. The crazy rhythm of that film, determined by the sheer unpredictability of events and people, is also evinced in The Force. Nicks’ use of extended bass notes for montages or transitions, together with a careful attention to sound, characterizes his style in each film. Both are refreshingly free of the editorializing use of music, although The Force is flawed somewhat by a last-minute edit; it was the result of a late-breaking scandal involving Chief of Police Sean Whent, the architect of change at the OPD, and a key figure in the documentary.

Nicks’ opening montage in The Force thrums with violence; it is loud, chaotic and disorienting. The cross-cutting that follows, between a police academy graduation ceremony and the classroom training of police cadets, at first does nothing to resolve the puzzling series of images. Before long, though, the documentary settles into Nicks’ journalistic pattern of introducing classroom theory and then the application of that theory, or not, on the street, when the cadets move to their first assignments as police officers.

Throughout the documentary, Nicks struggles to find order, in the overhead night shots of Oakland’s streets in the prologue, and in the “heart of darkness” that is the OPD. In one scene, students watch a film about what is obviously a case of the excessive use of force by a police officer against a man who may or may not have a knife. In the group exercise afterward, one cadet insists that his job is to survive his shift, so excessive force is justified. In the heat of argument, none of the men in that group allows a female officer to speak. Soon afterward, Nicks joins the newly minted Officer Cairo in his patrol car, a man who appears continually on edge.

The young policeman is always chewing something, and he seems to vibrate with anticipation, even when seated at the wheel of the patrol car. At one crime scene, he chases a man and Tasers him; at another, he yells at a man distraught over his mother’s injuries in a car accident. Although that man, bare-chested and in pajama bottoms in broad daylight, obviously has emotional or psychological problems, he backs off each time Officer Cairo asks him to; in a radio call to the dispatcher, Cairo nevertheless characterizes him as “extremely confrontational.” Near the end of the documentary, officers respond to a loud car rally where the drivers are all Latino men. Afterward, an unarmed man is killed; Officer Cairo is one of several police officers who shot him, yet he is returned to duty.

In the course of the documentary, Chief Whent is called to the scene of the seventh police shooting of a civilian in 2016, marking the reversal of his celebrated turnaround of the OPD, this after the announcement of a brewing sex scandal within the department. Then, the newly inducted mayor of Oakland, Libby Shaaf, discovers the department’s “toxic macho culture” that she promises to “root out.” While this makes for exciting viewing, what lingers long after watching the documentary are the subtexual elements in seemingly uneventful sequences. At a community meeting with Whent, an African-American woman’s voice quavers as she describes the burglary of her home; it took three days for the police to respond. Whent replies by citing the department’s priority, which is violent crime. It recalls the group discussion among cadets about excessive force. The black woman who was silenced in that scene represented a mediating voice.

That women are undermined in military-style organizations, or that “toxic macho culture” is running rampant from Silicon Valley to Washington, D.C., is not news, nor is a white, male bureaucrat like Whent, seemingly unable to understand the sense of violation that a home invasion represents, especially to a woman living alone. Label it sexism, racism or any other “ism,” but understood as metaphor, these incidents represent a shocking lack of humanity and that, in the end, is what unsettles Nicks and what will unhinge his audience.

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