Shocking Truths Unveiled in ‘Power’: Police as ‘Armies’ by Filmmaker Yance Ford!

The fresh documentary “Power” delves into the history of law enforcement in the United States, seeking to answer the questions: Who are the police truly serving? Whose interests are they guarding? The film employs an essay style and draws on the insights of a host of legal professionals, journalists, academics, and law enforcement personnel to guide viewers through a deep investigation of a topic that lies at the heart of societal divisions.

Yance Ford, the director of the 2017 Oscar-nominated film “Strong Island,” gained recognition as the first openly transgender director to receive an Academy Award nomination for a film. “Strong Island” provides a touching exploration of how Ford’s brother William, a 24-year-old teacher, was shot and killed by a 19-year-old white mechanic in 1992, an act a grand jury deemed justified. The film delves deeply into the effects of the criminal justice system on a single grieving family.

“Power” sees Ford tackling a more expansive subject, while still anchoring the film firmly in personal exploration and inquisitiveness. The main objectives of the police to safeguard property and manage populations often conflict with public safety and community worries. While the film doesn’t offer easy solutions, it points towards potential avenues for improving police-citizen relations.

“This film serves as a resource for people engaged in this work,” Ford, 52, stated in a recent interview. “My hope was that it would be useful for those striving to redefine our concept of public safety.”

“Power” premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and hits theaters on Friday, followed by a Netflix release on May 17. While promoting the film, Ford spoke with The Times via a Zoom call from Toronto.

Before we delve into the film, what are your thoughts on the recent scenes of police officers being summoned to college campuses nationwide to disperse student protesters?

Putting my feelings into words is challenging because these images remind me of how little we’ve learned from our past. They bring to mind the rhetoric used to undermine student movements in the 1960s, claims of outside instigators and professional agitators. These echoes from the past lead me to question whether America is doomed to endlessly repeat its history. Universities are deploying police to restore order, to restrain, and to remove those viewed as disrupters of the status quo.

“Strong Island” was a deeply personal film, focusing on your family’s experiences within the criminal justice system. Was “Power” born from an attempt to gain a broader perspective on the ordeal you endured?

I’ve been reflecting on policing ever since detectives visited my parents’ home to explain why my brother’s killer wouldn’t face charges. However, when George Floyd was killed and protests erupted across the country, I noticed a distinct shift in how the police responded. The police in New York, where I live, appeared more dangerous, unrestrained, and militaristic. This spurred me to question the purpose and function of the police in a new light. I saw the police acting as an occupying force, mirroring their militarization.

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This sparked the line of questioning that ultimately led to the creation of the film. It was less about gaining a broader perspective on my family’s experience and more about what I was witnessing on the streets in the United States and around the world. Watching protesters in New York being confined and pepper-sprayed, the aggression was palpable. The violent reaction seemed to frame the protesters as the issue, not Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd. This prompted me to start questioning the purpose, meaning, and function of the police in a different way.

The film opens with a statement from you, saying, “This film requires curiosity, or at least suspicion.” Could you elaborate on that?

I included that statement at the start of the film because I understand that the topic of policing is divisive, often split between Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter. Whenever policing is discussed as an “issue,” there are those who might expect the documentary to either criticize the police or reinforce their own views on policing. My intention was to invite viewers, regardless of their stance on the issue, to approach the film with an open mind. I acknowledge that if you hold a particular viewpoint, you might be skeptical of my motives. But I want you to watch the film anyway. I recognize that you might be curious to learn the information in this film because you’re predisposed to being interested, and that predisposition is also fine. I understand all of these factors and I want you to engage with the film anyway.

One of the facts that made me realize I had a lot to learn is that the first municipal police force wasn’t established until the 1880s. That seems like a relatively recent development. I think many viewers, including myself, would have assumed that the police have been around for a lot longer.

That’s one of the great things about this film – it’s thoroughly fact-checked. I anticipate that upon the film’s release, there will be individuals who will dispute the facts presented. However, I’m confident that my team at Multitude Films, along with our excellent fact-checker, have done their homework. Policing is not as old as you think it is. It originated in the mid-19th century, not to maintain public safety or combat crime, but to protect property, control movement, dismantle unions, and facilitate westward expansion by displacing Indigenous people. There’s plenty of room for debate about the future of policing, but one of our main goals was to establish irrefutable facts. By doing so, we encourage viewers to think about how history influences the present.

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One of the film’s most surprising characters is Charlie Adams, a Minneapolis police officer striving to reform policing from within the institution itself. Seeing someone so close to where George Floyd lived and died, and realizing that policing doesn’t have to be the way we know it – how did you come across Charlie Adams?

We researched numerous police officers, commanders, and chiefs across the country who were making efforts to reform their departments. Charlie Adams stood out because of his longstanding work in Minneapolis, helping his officers in the 4th Precinct understand the community’s perspective. Charlie Adams is a fascinating character as he clearly has good intentions but is also constrained by the institutional boundaries within which he operates. Certain aspects of the criminal legal system limit his effectiveness. Charlie Adams does what he can, but when he confronts the reality of policing, it becomes clear that the issue extends beyond individual chiefs or officers.

When considering what keeps communities safe, we can’t simply focus on the actions of individuals or rely on another round of reforms initiated by the police. We need to take a different approach, considering solutions that originate from the community and extend to the police, and think about institutional reform or reimagining a different institution. Spending time with Inspector Adams highlights that behind every individual officer, there’s a powerful institution that needs to be addressed.

In the film, you mention to an interviewee that you want to address the concept of “the we-ness of it all.” Is this one of the challenges in discussing policing? Is it difficult to address the issues and concerns of all these separate communities, different people, different sets of “we”?

In my view, the question of “Who is the ‘we,’?” is directly related to the question at the end of the film about power conceding nothing without a demand. Identifying who the “we” is, is part of defining what the demand will be. What will you demand of the police? What will I demand? Once we specify who the “we” is, we can start to understand what we will demand of the police. For too long, those responsible for regulating the police, for defining their role and how they should perform it, have neglected their duties or allowed the police to self-regulate.

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If this were a business, we’d say, “Internet companies, you can regulate yourselves.” We know from history how well self-regulation has worked in the business world. Yet, we’ve lacked elected officials willing to take on their responsibility to regulate the police. As a result, citizens are deciding that it’s their job to do so.

Why did you decide to name the film “Power” instead of simply “Police”?

Because the two terms are synonymous – they are one and the same. The police embody the power of the state. Most people, including you and me, will interact with the police far more often than they will with their elected representative or senator. In terms of how the government and the state are made tangible in people’s lives, the answer is the police. When you think about who holds the most power in this country on a day-to-day basis, for most people, it’s the police. So, I wanted to be very clear about the perspective from which the film examines police and policing.

Plus, it’s a fantastic title, if I do say so myself. It gives you a sense of what you’re going to see. When you buy a ticket to a film called “Power,” you know what you’re getting into.

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