Sundance doc ‘The Force’ explores policing amid time of racial strife
Filmmaker says film depicts progress and failure of Oakland Police Department
Filmmaker Peter Nicks carried with him a number of preconceived notions when he decided to spend two years embedded with the Oakland Police Department.
As an African-American man, he was well familiar with the troubling role police had played in the history of black America. And he was set to explore the department as racial tensions in the country were swelling following several high-profile police shootings that ignited a nationwide backlash against perceived police brutality.
But Nicks — who said he grew up in a “fairly privileged environment” and never experienced firsthand discrimination from the police — was not interested in shaping a film around a predetermined narrative. In the documentary “The Force,” which is set to premier in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival, he aims to show the complexities surrounding a topic whose shades of gray are far too often ignored.
The film isn’t trying to convince viewers that the majority of cops are corrupt and violent, nor does it attempt to downplay the devastating affect institutional shortcomings of a department can have on the community it serves. What it tries to do, instead, Nicks said, is reframe the conversation surrounding police accountability by showing the reality from inside the Oakland Police Department, an agency grappling with the ramifications of its own checkered past.
“We needed to learn and experience reality in such a way that we can hold two truths at once,” he said.
Finding that balance, though, was difficult. As Nicks and his crew began their project, Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent was working under federal oversight to reform the department, known in the past for brutality and corruption. The film depicts the idealistic Whent and other officials preaching to new recruits about the importance of their role in the Oakland community and urging them to behave at all times with integrity.
The success of many of the reforms ultimately drew national attention, and some hailed the department as a model others could follow. But outside the department walls, more police shootings around the country birthed the Black Lives Matter movement and other social justice efforts and ignited the ire of residents in Oakland, who were skeptical the department had changed for the better in any meaningful way.
As a filmmaker, Nicks found working through that contradiction challenging.
“It was difficult because we, on some level, had to reconcile these calls for justice and the public’s perception of the police with what we were seeing on the ground, which was a very progressive police department in Oakland,” he said.
The film offers rare glimpses into how police officers, themselves, wrestle with the issue. In one scene, academy recruits watch body-camera footage of an officer shooting a suspect who appeared to be reaching for a weapon inside his jacket. The recruits vigorously debate whether the officer’s action was appropriate or an abuse of lethal power, giving viewers a sense of the type of conversations taking place in departments all across the country.
“Moments like that really capture and present the audience a type of access and nuance that you just don’t get, for the most part, in the news,” Nicks said. “These shootings are typically framed by the polarization between Black Lives Matter and the police unions and there’s no nuanced conversation between us.”
Even after two years embedded with the police department, exploring the issue, Nicks doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. Despite all the progress the agency made under Whent, by the end of the film he has resigned amid a wide-ranging sexual misconduct scandal implicating several officers — though not Whent directly — giving Oakland residents yet another reason to be distrustful of their police department.
That development, and the fallout from it, left Nicks ultimately wondering whether America’s institutions, led by fallible human beings, are destined to fail or if there’s yet reason for hope. Viewers will be left pondering the same question.
“I saw so much complexity in both the progress the department made but also in the ultimate moral failures that took place and the institutional failures that took place,” he said. “What we wanted to do in the film was communicate that complexity and leave the audience really searching for their own answers.”
“The Force” will screen in the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentary Competition at the following times and locations:
Sunday, Jan. 22, 3 p.m. at the Temple Theater
Tuesday, Jan. 24, 11:30 a.m. at the Prospector Square Theater
Thursday, Jan. 26, 5:30 p.m. at the MARC
Friday, Jan. 27, 9 p.m. at Redstone Cinema 7
Saturday, Jan. 28, 12:30 p.m. at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center
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