Peter Nicks's is a cinema verit-style documentary focused on the Oakland Police Department as things stood shortly after the arrival of then-police chief Sean Whent in 2014. At that point, the Oakland PD had been under federal oversight for a little over 10 years, following a scandal centered on police misconduct, and Whent's mandate was to whip the department into shape, once and for all. Anyone who has lived in the Bay Area for the past three years knows that didn't happen.
But knowing how the story ends doesn't make The Force a bore. Watching almost feels like being embedded in the department. The film observes, but doesn't comment. There's no narration and it mostly stays away from talking-head interviews as it loosely follows a couple of new officers through their training, induction, and eventual patrolling. And while we don't learn too much about them, it still comes as a shock when it's revealed that one of them was involved with one of the department's (woefully abundant) controversial shootings.
Some scenes play out like a less sensationalized episode of Cops, as we're placed smack dab in to the middle of some police calls. These moments help illustrate how even something as seemingly straightforward as a call to help an injured pedestrian can evolve into a potentially deadly incident.
But understanding how an incident might turn deadly doesn't equal justification, and screen time is also given to the growing Black Lives Matter movement, its associated protests (including the one that shut down the Bay Bridge in 2016), and community gatherings where citizens are so fed up with the police violence that they even begin to volley ideas about how they might organize their own police force, as they've completely lost trust in the one that's been provided to them.
Peter Nicks, a longtime resident of Oakland, also directed the documentary The Waiting Room, about Oakland's Highland Hospital. He will reportedly follow up The Force with a doc centered on Oakland's education system. It's unlikely Nicks could have foreseen how much worse the Oakland PD would actually get when he started filming, and that becomes more evident when the now well-known underage sexual exploitation scandal hits the department. The film almost seems unprepared for it, with much of the exposition surrounding that story coming from local news clips and newspaper headlines.
Nicks doesn't vilify the police — they're more than able to do that themselves — and he doesn't pretend the city's protests were without their own violence. The film is about as bipartisan as you can get when it comes to the topic of the police and the growing civil unrest surrounding many of the nation's departments. Of course, that won't stop some from seeing an anti-police bias simply because the choice was made to focus a film on a police department with long-standing and very infamous problems. No, the Oakland Police Department is not every PD in America. But every PD in America would do well to learn from their mistakes.
'The Force' is a current advertiser on SFist, however advertising is entirely negotiated by our New York parent site, Gothamist, and SFist previews and reviews are all written objectively and without regard to any such sponsorship.