Power review – damning documentary traces the history of US policing – The Guardian

Sundance film festival: Yance Ford’s follow-up to Oscar-nominated documentary Strong Island is a visually elegant, if a little dry, look at a problematic institution
Power, the documentarian Yance Ford’s clinical inquiry into US policing, isn’t trafficking in new information. The 86-minute project billed as an “essay-film”, which premiered at Sundance and will stream on Netflix later this year, has clear eyes on the past, synthesizing the work of several academics with a robust archival record to examine the origins, structure and impact of police power in the United States.
That doesn’t mean it’s unnecessary; the film makes cogent, sweeping sense of the record for perhaps the most illuminative, swift and damning case against the institution of policing – the real fourth estate, as one subject puts it – of the many investigations conducted in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. But there’s a dryness to its procedure. Though more visually elegant and poetic (almost to a fault, owing to Ford’s at times ponderous narration) than a Netflix Explained entry, Power basically has the same function as a nonfiction explainer. Perhaps owing to its ample use of academics to supply the exclamation points and through-lines to a truly remarkable collage of archival footage, the film has the feel of a very deluxe college lecture. (A visual metaphor linking policing power to an atomic bomb, while mesmerizing to look at, never fully lands.)
Ford, who previously directed Sundance breakout Strong Island about the murder of his brother, smartly structures Power not by chronology but theme. Among them, social control, status quo and global uprising, starting with the three primary origins of policing in the US: the expansion into the frontier, which forced the removal of Indigenous people; the evolution of slave patrols in the south, which monitored the movement of Black bodies; and the municipal policing of workers across the country, which disrupted organized labor. All three, as numerous academics point out, hinged on the control of perceived threats to the social hierarchy and order through the harassment of an other.
Power moves seamlessly through the past and present, connecting the formation of corrupt police departments and the colonialist origins of paramilitary tactics to the crackdowns, persecution and abject violence perpetrated by modern US police officers, often caught on cellphone or body cameras and blasted across media. Numerous subjects – among them the journalist Wesley Lowery, who has extensively covered the state of US policing amid the Black Lives Matter movement, and Redditt Hudson, a Black former police officer turned police reform activist – make the point that police are imbued with unchecked power. That they wield the power to end lives without accountability. That most of the harm caused by policing in the US is perfectly legal. That policing has always been more about maintaining social hierarchies than actual safety.
All of which is known, if you’ve been paying attention. That many Americans still don’t alone justifies the Netflix distribution. But room remains for Power to delve beyond unassailable structural arguments into individual complications – the type of experiences that lead people to continue supporting police as is, or what makes federal funding for law enforcement a promise politically impossible to break. The film’s one on-the-ground source is Charlie Adams, a Black longtime police officer in Minneapolis; his precinct is six miles from the one where George Floyd was murdered in 2020.
In the film’s standout scene, Adams meets with Black community advocates to discuss better policing. Adams, who has first-hand experience with police racism and has advocated for more Black officers, notes a streak of routine carjackings by Black youth in the precinct, an issue he attributes to a revolving door of arrests. The advocates note no one is seeking a rehabilitation plan or second chances; Black youths are deemed disposable in the eyes of the justice system – they’re “setting all of us up to fail, and this shit doesn’t happen in Edina”, one says, referring to a predominantly white, wealthy suburb nearby.
It’s a tricky, specific conversation, one I wish the film included more of, and of the kind Lowery and others call for when discussing real reform of a system that evidently harms so many. Power easily makes the case that that system was corrupt all along, from 18th-century slave patrols to 19th-century strikebreakers, 20th-century Jim Crow to 21st-century police shootings. The film ends with a quote by Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Power gives deep contextual grounding to a demand for change. How to make it is a question for another time.
Power is screening at the Sundance film festival and will be released on Netflix later this year

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