Don't Miss Power, a New Documentary About Unaccountable Policing, that Premiered at Sundance

  • January 23, 2024
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Photo by Gavin Dahl: Director Yance Ford, holding the microphone, discusses the film Power in Park City on January 19, 2024.

Yance Ford’s new documentary Power is an essay film, weaving together the perspectives of a dozen academics with a potent mixtape of archival footage. Comments from the brightest minds at Harvard, Yale, NYU, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Emory, Indiana, Georgetown Law and the Center for Constitutional Rights are as convincing as they are unsettling. 

Ever since the Kerner Commission Report led to new laws militarizing policing in 1968, federal taxpayer dollars directed to local police departments increased steadily to $192 billion in 2023. A montage of presidents over five decades shows no partisan divide for carceral logic.

In the Q&A after Friday’s screening in Park City, Ford said, quote, “It was a hard film to make. Subconsciously you turn a little bit off. It’s also part of why we cut away at times.” 

A key example is how the film handles the scene of George Floyd’s murder, redirecting the audience away from officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck, instead drawing our eyes to the officer’s accomplice. Viewers watch isolated silhouettes of bystanders pleading with Officer Tou Thao to simply check for a pulse. Even an off duty firefighter’s cries go unheeded.

One of the film’s central characters is Charlie Adams, an inspector in the 4th precinct of the Minneapolis Police Department, who works 6 miles from where George Floyd was murdered. A proud black cop who got his start back in 1986, he shares a story of getting hit in the head by a white cop while attempting to detain a black suspect early in his career. The white cop said to Adams at the time, “I couldn’t tell who was who so I just swung at the first head I could get to.”

Racial discrimination is a central problem in policing, with professors arguing white imaginations have shaped the perception of Black bodies as dangerous or disorderly. However, the problem of out of control American policing goes beyond racism. 

People without property are seen as threatening to a social order built on property. Similar to insurgents abroad, most civilians become potential criminals in the eyes of cops. Just as counter insurgency is used to establish policing apparatus around the world, the film asserts violence work isn’t violent work, it functions best when not inflicted, instead merely understood. Unlike any other part of government, policing is about monopolizing force. 

From frontier militias targeting indigenous people to slave patrols, from managing class order during labor strife to directing billions of federal dollars to local police departments, tracking the history and evolution of policing in under ninety minutes is not easy to do. The film’s focus is on breadth versus depth, structured around themes rather than chronology. Power invites us to...

Consider the faulty stop and frisk approach with parallels between profiling to demand ID and requiring slaves to show their papers at any moment. Recognize how police unions use collective bargaining to avoid accountability. Understand how hard it is to prosecute police killings of people of color when chokeholds, for example, are usually legal. And while presidents don’t have the right to shoot you dead in the street, police do, thanks to qualified immunity.

It is frightening to face, but most harm that policing causes is perfectly legal. A professor points out: we are the ones who make it legal. The director Yance Ford stops her to ask, “Am I a part of ‘we’?” The film artfully cuts away before she answers. During the q&a, I asked Ford about the professor’s response. Ford said by “we” the professor meant the courts, the legal system.

Who do the police work for? Why haven’t we reckoned with a judicial system that provides liberty and justice for some, not all? Unqualified compliance required by police is authoritarian. Over-policing is a skewed relationship, and the film Power asserts Americans have ceased to be self governing. Therefore expanded police power threatens our very democracy.

The film does not investigate reform movements or present alternatives. It simply asks us to examine our own relationships to law enforcement and the court system. Ford wraps up the film with a Frederick Douglass quote: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” In that speech from 1857, Douglass continued, “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” The documentary asks why we’re complicit in the systemic problem of growing police power and what will we demand?

Variety calls it jam-packed. IndieWire calls it damning. The Guardian calls it truly remarkable. Power will be launching later this year on Netflix. Don’t miss it. 

For KRCL and Rocky Mountain Community Radio, I’m Gavin Dahl.

An audio version of this review aired on Radioactive on January 22, 2024 as well as on KSJD Cortez and KSUT Four Corners Public Radio.