Protest, Police Brutality, & The Documentary Film

After the shooting of Michael Brown, and all of the incidents that followed, it seems a poignant time to take stock of America’s relationship to its police officers.  In general, this reflection tends to lend absurdity to the Romantic notions of law enforcement perpetuated by Dirty Harry, Die Hard, Columbo, and Lethal Weapon.  In fact such scrutiny has befallen American law enforcement that the very label of “law enforcement” has become a joke.  This is precisely why I have turned to the cinema for an examination of how America has interpreted it’s relationship with police in the last century.  To do this I have preferred the documentary to the fiction film primarily to avoid the unique relationship the American public has with its Romantic depictions of cops, deciding that this particular relationship was better suited to a different essay all together.

The Sixth Side Of The Pentagon

The Sixth Side Of The Pentagon

The first film I would like to address is also the oldest, Chris Marker’s The Sixth Side Of The Pentagon (1968).  Marker’s film captures the fervor of the Yippies’ protest of the Vietnam war at the Pentagon on October 7th, 1967.  This non-violent protest rapidly devolved into a confrontation with MPs and police, of which the most popular account is surely Norman Mailer’s often self-critical Armies Of The Night.  For my purposes the history comes second to the presentation of the facts that make-up the history.

Almost naturally, Marker’s film covers the initial conception of the protest in New York, then follows the Yippies to Washington DC to levitate the Pentagon.  In this way, once the violence breaks out between police and demonstrators, the viewer intuitively sides with the radical left.  To further reinforce this strategy Marker uses several cut-aways to news footage of Vietnamese civilians mutilated by either bombings or napalm.  All of the while authority figures, such as the MPs and police officers, are regulated to a kind of faceless mass bloodying all those who clash with it.

In opposition to Marker’s obvious liberal spin on his footage is Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s The Weather Underground (2002).  The Weather Underground represents something unique in almost all American political documentaries, objectivity.  Part of this may be accounted for by the subjects’ cynicism, and part of it in the structure chosen for the film.  For unlike Marker’s film, The Weather Underground chooses to intertwine both the narratives of the radical Weathermen and the conservative law enforcement agencies tasked with apprehending them.  The method of intercutting back and forth between the Weathermen story and the FBI story is powerful, particularly when, in contemporary interviews with the persons involved, neither the once radical nor the former FBI men sound all that different in terms of their rhetoric of today.  In fact, both sides of the conflict seem to exhibit total disbelief in their former lives, spanning some fourteen years between 1968 and 1982.

The Weather Underground

The Weather Underground

Siegel and Green’s representation of violence is also democratic.  If The Weather Underground shows its audience an instance of one of the Weathermen’s bombings, then that will be countered with an instance of FBI injustice or police brutality.  Unlike Marker, Siegel and Green’s thesis is not dependent on a victim/victimizer relationship between subjects, but looks to determine how one side’s violence fed another’s, perpetuating in cyclical fashion an endless stream of attack and counter-attack.

Siegel and Green’s approach is superficially at work in this third film, Jason Osder’s Let The Fire Burn (2013), but is undermined by the subtextual void created by Osder’s lack of commitment to explaining to his audience the very nature of MOVE, the supposed protagonists of his documentary.  Similarly to The Weather Underground, Osder insinuates that violence begets more violence (or in most cases the suggestion of potential violence beckons realized counter-violence).  However, Osder’s film does not inform the viewer of any of MOVE’s intentions nor any motives.  So it becomes a matter of speculation as to the emotions the film draws from its audience as being politically motivated or simply propagandist in nature.  More often than not, when a filmmaker negates essential details in a documentary it is to disproportionately represent either side of a conflict, relegating the intention of the film beyond the simple cinematic journalism, albeit liberal, in The Sixth Side Of The Pentagon and The Weather Underground.

It seems safe to say, given the example of William Gazecki’s Waco: The Rules Of Engagement (1997), that the audience’s sympathies would not go out to the abominable Philadelphia Police Department but rest squarely with the MOVE members.  After all David Koresh manages to come off as the victim of the ATF in Gazecki’s film simply because his crime was far out weighed by the ATF and FBI’s intentional mass murder of innocents; so why doesn’t the same apply to Let The Fire Burn?

One cannot say for certain Osder’s motives for his omission, though it certainly wasn’t out of necessity; Philadelphia burned several blocks of row homes to kill the members of MOVE, begging the question of Osder’s film “how much overkill does it take to get the sympathy of a jaded American audience?”  What is undeniable about Osder’s film is its outrage at the racism of Philadelphia officials and police officers, setting it apart drastically from The Weather Underground and The Sixth Side Of The Pentagon which dealt almost exclusively with white liberal activists.  But Osder’s obvious assumption that an audience, that will inevitably be racially mixed, would side with a militant police force out for blood over a defenseless house full of men, women and children, be they black or white, is a serious mis-step suggesting a more directed political agenda.

Let The Fire Burn

Let The Fire Burn

Despite the differences of these three films, as well as their merits and failings, each indicates a suspicion of authority and an outrage at violence.  That the moments recorded in these films seem to have slipped the minds of the average American prior to each film’s release is, in my opinion, the epicenter of the biggest problem in America today; ignorance.  And it isn’t cultural or political ignorance, but an ignorance of America’s history.  If the lessons of these three films were remembered by everyone everyday, even if one only experienced the event through one of these films, then more articulate and exact conversations could begin around American legislature, ultimately resulting in some kind of reform that would take America away from the precipice of violence and intolerance.

-Robert Curry


1 Comment

Filed under Autumn 2014

One response to “Protest, Police Brutality, & The Documentary Film

  1. A person

    You’ve once again hit on a subject of great interest to me. I’m currently looking into the history of ideas surrounding not only enforcement, but also bleeding into previous conceptions about absolute rule in the minds of the middle and lowers classes of the Netherlands and England around the time Sir Robert Peel was acting prime minister. I’m interested to see the transitions about national identity in those middle classes leading into perceptions that current day Americans carry about those same concepts of authority/absolute authority/absolute irresponsible authority. So I’m digging to see what we still carry from those ideas and what we have lost, what has changed over time, and what the myriad of causes for those shifts.

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