Police chatter, easy to identify yet indiscernible in substance, is followed by a haze of silvery lens flares moving, unpredictably, across the screen — it isn’t immediately clear what you’ve gotten yourself into. The lights are out of focus, as if shining right in your face, and you strain to recognize a crime or street name amongst the background lingo. You are so close that it’s hard to know what you’re looking at.
You are alert, trying to understand what angle of law enforcement you are about to be shown. What side are you on?
This is the tone that drives and defines the exemplary documentary, “The Force” — uncertainty, ambiguity and an aggressively open mind, as director Peter Nicks described the project, show the audience another side to the questions surrounding police use of force. Mutual distrust between police and activists is highlighted, as their experiences are shown side by side in “The Force,” held together by a capably calm filmmaker.
Nicks leads by example: His filmmaking holds the two truths with equal emphasis — and therefore asks the audience to do the same.
The first 50 seconds of “The Force” present more nuance over the complex subjects of police power and human vulnerability than the two issues have been given in their legion of recent think pieces.
Still within the first moments of the film, we are let into focus: the once-engrossing light is small now and coming from a helicopter above, you can identify with being on the ground, you are the vulnerable. But, as quickly as this viewpoint is understood, the perspective switches. Now, looking down, you are shown a labyrinth of lights and moving cars, the tone is heightened — with farther to fall.
The film follows officers on reliably unpredictable calls. Allowing the audience to sit in the back seat of a cop car without the guilt, instead it feels as if we are meant to be there, we are meant to see. Sequences that begin as benign escalate shakily, conveying police work as place of precarious power. Nearly reaching chaos, yet never commenting on its strong probability, the viewer is left with uncertain empathy.
Behind the blue wall of silence, as it turns out, there is a lot to think about.
“The Force” is the second film in what will become a trilogy of documentaries exploring the underfunded institutions that serve us all, from Oakland-based nonprofit Open’hood, Inc.
The film, which won the Directing Award for a U.S. Documentary at Sundance Film Festival this year, was shot and directed by Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism alumnus Peter Nicks. Nicks’ camera tails the Oakland Police Department as it is forced, by federal order, to evolve in response to a high-profile case of police brutality involving four OPD officers — known as the “Riders” — in 2000. Years after the alleged corruption, the city of Oakland paid $11 million to settle a lawsuit against the accused — one officer remains fugitive, while the other three were never convicted. The settlement, however, involved a reform plan contingent on indefinite federal oversight.
After the oversight was implemented, Black Lives Matter protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, singeing the national narrative in the years between. “The Force” aimed to document what law enforcement reform looked like in “real time,” Nicks said in an interview with The Daily Californian.
Like Open’hood’s first installment of the trilogy — 2012’s “The Waiting Room,” which tackled healthcare inequality — “The Force” tells a character-driven narrative through nonfiction form. Without any interviews or voice-over narration from the director — documentary tools relied on all too often to give the genre a mortal touch — Nicks instead follows and observes in a cinéma vérité style that creates an intimate connection to the real-life characters featured.
Combined with unprecedented access that the filmmakers were able to acquire from the city itself, we are led through the vérité style as an anxious fly-on-the-wall into an experience as unceasing as the 12-hour shifts the overworked officers of OPD work on a daily basis. In watching the revamped police training — which includes scenes of everything from reels of Black Panther protests to difficult, leaning into philosophical, discussions over police shootings of unarmed suspects — the audience can see a police force, eager to emerge from oversight, attempt change.
A work of captivating nonfiction, “The Force” works without conclusion, opting instead for the truth of ambiguity. Knowing what to feel at the end is not the answer, but seeing both sides is unavoidable.