Winner of a Directing Award from the Sundance Film Festival and a Courage in Cinema Prize from Boston’s Independent Film Festival, and named the Best Bay Area Documentary by the San Francisco International Film Festival, Peter Nick’s riveting documentary The Force presents a unique cinema vérité look inside the long-troubled Oakland Police Department as it struggles to confront federal demands for reform. Nicks’ filming over two years coincided with national protests against police following the events in Ferguson, Missouri, as well as an explosive scandal that rocked Oakland just when the police department was making progress with its reform efforts.
A young police chief, hailed as an effective reformer, is brought in to complete the turnaround in Oakland at the very moment the Black Lives Matter movement emerges to demand police accountability and racial justice across the nation. Meanwhile, young cops in the Academy are being trained to police in a new era of transparency and accountability. Out on the street, the camera gets up close as rookie and veteran officers alike face an increasingly hostile public where dueling narratives surround each use of force. Officers are being watched like never before as they respond to a constant flood of 911 calls, revealing the wide gulf between how cops see themselves and how they are seen by the public. Just as the OPD was garnering national attention as a model of police reform, the man charged with turning the department around suddenly found himself facing the greatest challenge of his career, one that could threaten not only the progress that had been made, but the very authority of the institution itself. I sat down with Emmy Award-winning director Peter Nicks to discuss his provocative and timely new film.
Danny Miller: I watched this film last month on the very night that protests were breaking out in St. Louis following the acquittal of the white cop who had shot and killed a black driver, Anthony Lamar Smith. With everything that’s been happening lately, this film seems as timely as ever even though it was shot a few years ago.
Peter Nicks: When we began making the film, Back Lives Matter wasn’t even a hashtag yet. But The Force, the second film in a trilogy I’m doing about the relationship between public institutions and the communities they serve (the first film was The Waiting Room about a public hospital and the final film will be about public education) was partly inspired by the films of Frederick Wiseman and partly by The Wire. We began with the central questions, “Who becomes a cop and why? and “How has the job changed over time?” There were already a lot of stories our country had wrestled with, going back to Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, so many others, including the shooting of Oscar Grant in Oakland. As a nation we are inundated with all these stories. As a black person and as a black filmmaker in this community, I had to reconcile my identity with my role as a documentarian. But I knew that what I was trying to do was tell the story of the men and women who are our police. Who are they?
An important perspective to add to the increasingly polarized discussion. It was heartbreaking to see how it seemed like actual reforms were happening in Oakland just when that other scandal hit. I’m guessing that the final film has a whole different tone than the one you thought it would have going in.
Oh, the film was almost done. We were heading to Sundance when all that happened in Oakland.
Whoa, so you had a totally different cut?
Yeah. But we felt we had to stop and add that to the story. Ultimately this is a film that requires you to hold multiple and sometimes contradictory truths simultaneously. The reality is that there are multiple and often contradictory truths that exist within any police department — just like there were multiple and contradictory truths that existed within groups like the Black Panthers when they were rising up and fighting against injustice and later got consumed by some of their own internal problems.
Even though the reforms in Oakland were mandated, they didn’t just decide to do it by themselves, it seemed to me like it was a sincere effort that could have provided such a good roadmap for other police departments. Maybe it still will, but it made what happened seem all the more tragic.
That’s why Shakespeare is timeless. This is the human condition — humanity is in a constant process of failure and reform, and I think this is just one snapshot of that. Different audiences are going to have different perspectives on what they see but I’ve talked to many people who’ve seen the film who came into it with a predisposition against the police who said that the film did shift their perception of how they viewed them. Some said they actually found themselves, almost against their will, rooting for the police.
It’s hard not to admire some of the recruits we meet in the film, they really seem like they joined the force for all the right reasons. And then when we see what happens later, I kept thinking how difficult it must be for them to wake up and know that there are these swaths of the public that think they’re bad people.
Big swaths! It’s become really hard to even talk about since many of the people who are the ones to say, “Hey, give cops a chance!” are the “All Lives Matter” people. We just had one at a screening in Berkeley who was the first one to speak after the film and he was literally booed and shouted down by everyone, including the moderator of the panel. He was saying that police use force for a reason and we’re losing sight of that, and that there’s a level of violence in our communities that is not being honestly held that these police are faced with on a daily basis and forced to make difficult decisions.
Those are valid points to discuss in and of themselves but it’s certainly not hard to see why the trust between the police and certain communities has eroded over the years.
For sure. I grew up in the Black Church and I went to Howard University and have held these narratives myself. My Dad talked about how the police would be brought in to “keep the peace” at lynchings. There’s a lot in our history that has led people to have a really hard time with the concept that most cops are good and there’s just a few bad apples. And that’s why we see many activists who no longer see any use of force by the police as justified. That tends to drive divisions and part of what we were trying to do with the film was show different points of view. The cops can be very defensive because in their minds they’re going out to protect black lives every day, but we were also trying to push cops to understand these deeper narratives that are carried in the African American community that people have been carrying their whole lives — not just from what they’ve experienced but also stories that have been told to them by their parents, their grandparents, and great-grandparents. That’s hard.
You’re definitely walking a kind of necessary tightrope with this film. As you were making it, did you sense that you were opening yourself up for criticism by both sides?
Yeah. Our premiere in Oakland was taken over by activists who demanded that one of the activists in the film be put on the panel. They stopped the discussion before it even started and held an action demanding that she be brought up to the panel. That was fine, but there is such an inability for people from different groups to hear each other right now, there is so much anger and resentment on both sides.
And looking at it from the outside, it’s not that hard to see why.
We think that some of the impact of the film is going to have to happen in our living rooms and in small groups of people who experience the film and reflect on it. Without question, this is a film that gets people talking, it stirs up lots of intellectual ideas, lots of emotions, that’s what we intended and we’re going to hopefully get the film into school curriculums and police academies. (Click here to see the community study guide that was prepared for use with the film.)
Were you surprised by any personal criticisms you got for making the film?
The truth is that is I got more antagonism from the activist community, starting from the moment I was getting out of police cars when I was embedded with the Oakland police during the making of the film. There were people taking my picture, people projecting on me that I was some kind of propaganda tool, without coming up to me and asking me who I am. I have lighter skin, but people don’t know my story or my intentions but made decisions about who I was and what I was trying to do. So that lack of tolerance and prejudice that came form this community that’s fighting against those very things really upset me, to be honest. Some people pushing against police violence have a very hard time with any notion of humanizing a cop. Even though this film is a sharp and crushing indictment of this department, it is still perceived by some people that I’m not on the right side.
Did you ever think of including your own personal story in the film even though that’s not typical for a filmmaker in a documentary. “I’m a person of color, I’m an Oakland resident…”
Yes, and we tried it, but that just wasn’t the film I wanted to make. We decided to keep an observational focus on this two-year period of what happened in this department, obviously with a severe twist at the end. There are so many different constituencies in Oakland and I knew what I was getting into when I embarked on the film and that when it came out, it was going to be perceived by a number of different constituencies in different ways. I understand that. There’s a woman towards the end of our film who was standing outside the police department who said, “We can’t see inside those four walls, but you can.”
Are you optimistic about the Oakland Police Department going forward?
I think we’re in a very challenging moment right now with trust. There’s too much happening from the lack of the justice system holding those officers who have transgressed accountable. We’re in the heat of it right now, trying to move forward, but what we’re hoping the film reminds people is that there are changes taking place. What you see happening in Oakland at the beginning of the film is still in place and the numbers of officer-involved shootings is way down which is a huge deal. And so there is movement, but there are still institutional failures and we definitely need to figure out the right mechanisms to put in place that will increase accountability and oversight. That is one of the big points of the film.