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New Film ‘The Force’ Takes an Unflinching Look Inside the Oakland Police Department

Filmmaker Pete Nicks trains his camera on one of the Bay's most complex, divisive institutions.

Read more from the Fall Arts Preview from our September 2017 issue here.


The dash-cam video
is over in less than a minute: A police cruiser pulls into a driveway, and an officer yells at the driver of a parked white pickup to stop and put his hands up, or he’ll shoot. A black man hops out of the truck. The officer squeezes the trigger. A barrage of bullets—13? 20?—hits the man, turns him sideways, and enters his back.

The footage of the confrontation—a real-life encounter captured in Modesto—is grainy, fast, and violent. And it’s all that the Oakland police recruits who are watching it have to determine whether the shooting was justified.

“If he had a knife, and he’s on the ground gasping for air, facing away from the officer, isn’t that threat neutralized?” one recruit asks another. Another replies: “But at the time… honestly, I don’t see nothing wrong.”

It’s one of the most arresting moments in The Force, director Pete Nicks’s documentary following the Oakland Police Department’s efforts at reform more than a decade after it was first placed under federal oversight. For two years, Nicks and producers Linda Davis and Lawrence Lerew embedded inside the department. The result, which will get its theatrical release this month, is an unvarnished picture of the people behind the institution, the ethical and tactical questions they face, and their tumultuous relationship with the community they’re sworn to protect.

“We’re trying to challenge the way both sides see themselves and the other,” Nicks says over coffee at his Oakland office. “We’re asking the general public to reexamine how they experience this story.”

That’s a pretty big request in a place like Oakland, where relationships between the police and communities of color have long been strained. But Nicks isn’t afraid of complicated narratives. As a mixed-race man in America, he’s seen men who look like him die at the hands of the police—and yet he also believes that getting arrested may have saved his life.

“Your personal experience defines the way you see the world,” he says. “Mine lets me walk into a police department with less judgment.”

Nicks was born in Ohio to a black father and a white mother; her family threatened to disown her if she kept him. He was later adopted by a black couple, a psychologist and a teacher living in Boston. They sent him to private schools and took him to church on Sundays. But during his sophomore year at Howard University, the wheels fell off. He dropped out, got a job at a nightclub, and started importing cocaine from Colombia.

On June 27, 1989, federal agents arrested Nicks as he walked out of a D.C. post office with cocaine-filled envelopes in his hands. Three days before his hearing for conspiracy to import cocaine, he overdosed on a combination of alcohol, quaaludes, and heroin. Nicks served 12 months in minimum-security federal prison in Morgantown, West Virginia. After his release, he started smoking crack.

It took Nicks three years and three stints in rehab to get clean. Howard readmitted him in 1995, and two years later he enrolled at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Trying to stay sober and restart his life, Nicks threw himself into learning about filmmaking at Berkeley. For his thesis, he made a 25-minute film about stuttering called Danny and the Scatman that Jon Else, Nicks’s professor at Berkeley (and an executive producer on The Force), calls “an amazing short film. It was obvious once we got our clutches on him that he was meant to do this.”

After school, Nicks worked as a producer for ABC News in New York, but later moved back to the East Bay. In 2007, he signed on to be a field producer on a film called The Waiting Room, documenting the inner workings of the emergency room at Oakland’s Highland Hospital. When the producers decided not to pursue the project, he asked to take over. Nicks conceived of the film as the first in a trilogy that would document “the grand narrative of an American city” through its institutions: first the hospital, then the police force, and finally the school system. The Waiting Room made the film festival circuit and was short-listed for an Academy Award.

Initially, Nicks and his team envisioned The Force as a similar film—an inside look at a police department reforming under the leadership of then-chief Sean Whent. “We told them, ‘We want to understand on a deeper level who you are as an institution,’” Nicks says. “But we weren’t going to pull any punches.”

They didn’t. Shortly after they started filming, a white cop shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, and protests exploded in Oakland. For two years, the filmmakers followed the police everywhere—as they faced off against bottle-throwing protesters, adopted body cameras, listened to Whent’s promises to rid the department of “blue-wall-of-silence bullshit,” and tried to answer activists angry over a slew of police-involved shootings. Then, as they were finishing editing the film, a prostitution scandal rocked the department, and Whent was out. Oakland went through three police chiefs in nine days. The filmmakers continued to follow the story even after they sent a cut to Sundance; as recently as July, they were rushing to update the film.

Despite the scramble, The Force has been enthusiastically received. In January, Nicks won the Director’s Prize at Sundance, one of the most prestigious awards in documentary film. Variety wrote that “the strength, and fascination, of The Force is that the movie isn’t on anyone’s side.”

It’s also not handing out any answers. There’s no narration, no interviews with talking heads. Two-thirds of the way through the film, Whent, who seemed like a savior for Oakland, is felled by scandal, and the modern, evolved OPD we’ve been watching—the one that warned recruits that one brutal cop in one video could ruin a department—is gone. It’s deflating, but, as Nicks points out, it’s also emblematic of the hope and tragedy of the OPD. He doesn’t see it as his job to provide solutions, only to get people to see the problems, and what he knows from his own experience: that people trying to do the right thing can do the wrong one, that police departments can be bad and good, and that an arrest can save a life or end it.

 

Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco 

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