Peter Nicks' award-winning documentary expands to L.A. and New York this weekend
Note: this is an expanded version of a piece originally posted on Friday
The Oakland Police Department holds the dubious distinction of being one of the nation's most troubled law enforcement institutions. For almost 15 years it's operated under federal supervision, the result of a scandal involving veteran officers who planted evidence, falsified reports and used excessive force, among other misdeeds.
Beginning a few years ago the city made a concerted attempt to reform the department and put an end to federal oversight, bringing in a respected new chief, Sean Whent, to handle the task. As that effort kicked into gear, filmmaker Peter Nicks, who lives in the Oakland area, gained remarkable access to the OPD's brass, beat cops and new recruits.
Nicks turned his footage into The Force, a visceral and dynamic view of a department in flux -- trying to regain the trust of a community with deep suspicion of the police. The Force expands to theaters in L.A. and New York this weekend, and opens in additional cities in the coming weeks.
Our style is observational and open-minded and we promised the [Oakland Police Department] that. We also promised that we would tell it as we saw it.
Nonfictionfilm.com interviewed Nicks in L.A. earlier in the week. In this clip he describes the film and discusses some of its stylistic influences.
In 2012 Nicks released The Waiting Room, a documentary that focused on a public hospital in Oakland. The acclaim for that film helped convince city leaders to cooperate on The Force, despite the objection of the police union.
"[We promised] we would give the department a fair treatment and I think that's a key word, which is fair. That doesn't mean it's a whitewash, a propaganda piece," Nicks told me. "Our style is observational and open-minded and we promised them that. We also promised that we would tell it as we saw it and everything that we experienced would be rendered in the film."
In this clip Nicks discusses the access he obtained, and the reaction to the film from OPD officers and other stakeholders.
The film's experiential quality allows viewers to get a sense of what it's like for an officer to arrive on the scene of an incident with no immediate ability to understand exactly what is happening or who might represent a threat. In that sense, some may feel The Force offers a more sympathetic take on Oakland beat cops than might have been expected.
"Part of what we're trying to capture is the unpredictability of the situations, the alien nature of a white cop finding himself in an argument in the middle of a community that he doesn't understand, where's he almost invisible but has to restrain people and de-escalate instead of escalate," Nicks said. "Those scenes represent our attempt to give the audience a feeling for how complicated that is."
The police get a very distorted view of the community.
Nicks added that after spending so much time with police on patrol, "[we had] gotten to know these officers, developed some sympathies along the way -- which we knew would be criticized by people who think we're just being brainwashed or propaganda agents for the department. We were taking huge risks and entering the space where we were trying to be accommodating of different people's voices."
Nicks is under no illusion about the built-in bias that afflicts police departments like the OPD.
"The police get a very distorted view of a community. They see violence, domestic violence, drugs, sex trafficking -- all these things they're surrounded by day in and day out. But it all comes from a sort of very narrow band of the population. They're not meeting the black kid who's going to Yale. They're not hanging out with the African-American woman who runs the non-profit trying to change education. They're responding to 911 calls. They don't have enough cops... and that really creates a distorted sense of how they view the community. And part of the reform process is to counteract that creeping bias that sinks into officers' heads about who young African-Americans are, for instance. And it's a tall order because that history goes back generations... These ideas are contrary to what police are asking us to do, which is to trust them."
In the clip below Nicks discusses ingrained police bias:
In 2016, the force began to implode -- events Nicks captured as they unfolded. Chief Whent was ousted after a sex scandal came to light involving officers and a teenage prostitute. In almost comical fashion, Whent's replacement quickly resigned, as did the next person appointed to the job. Oakland went through three police chiefs in nine days.
Subsequently, another scandal came to light, one involving officers who exchanged racist text messages.
Following that, a citizens' police review board with "unprecedented" powers was created "to ensure that Oakland has a professional police department whose members uphold high standards of integrity and justice."
"Even though this is an observational film that takes a decidedly open-minded approach there's some very sharp conclusions that the film makes -- one of which is that we need continued oversight," Nicks stated. "We need mechanisms to account for the inevitable in an institution which hasn't resolved those matters [of bias] with regard to justice and equity in this country."
Nicks won the best director award at Sundance for his work on The Force. He has two projects lined up next -- the third in his trilogy on institutions in Oakland and a fictional film for Fox Searchlight reportedly based on the book "The Fence: A Police Cover-Up Along Boston's Racial Divide."
In this clip Nicks discusses his future plans:
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.