Pete Nicks’ OPD doc is a Rorschach test.
Sometimes a few simple words can be downright inflammatory. Try this experiment: Say “Oakland Police Department” to the next stranger you meet and see what kind of reaction you provoke.
Ah, but you aren’t actually “provoking” anything, are you? Your new acquaintance held that point of view and harbored those emotions well before you came along. Congratulations. You’ve just had a taste of the trepidation that Oakland filmmaker Peter Nicks is living with in the days leading up to the opening of his riveting new film, The Force, on Sept. 15.
“My job as a documentarian is to take you inside a place where you ordinarily wouldn’t be able to go, and let you see how a vital public institution is—or is not—functioning,” Nicks said. “That’s a vital aspect of our democracy. This film was a lot more challenging because of the divisiveness of the issue. Right off the bat, people are less open, especially in Oakland, to a humanistic or sympathetic framing of the police. That was my great challenge.”
The Waiting Room, Nicks’ 2012 observational documentary about Highland Hospital’s overstretched emergency room, succeeded beautifully in making viewers understand and identify with frustrated patients and dedicated (and equally frustrated) nurses and doctors. Nicks’ crucial achievement was letting people see that Highland’s problems stemmed from larger societal problems—a screwed-up health care system, poverty, crime, lack of education—rather than uncaring or incompetent people.
Nicks claims a similar goal for The Force, but it’s a bit harder to grasp the big picture in this case. As important and inevitable as health care is, most people are able to maintain some distance and perspective. Can you imagine someone being set off just by the sight of a lab coat, a nurse’s uniform, or scrubs? A vast number of Americans, on the other hand, have a visceral response to a police officer’s blues. The Force, consequently, works as a Rorschach test that challenges the viewer’s ability to see individuals rather than symbols.
Going into the film, however, Nicks had the modest aim of observing how the OPD was implementing the reforms mandated by the negotiated settlement agreement the city signed in the wake of the infamous Riders case. A string of chiefs had been unable to get the department into full compliance, but Chief Sean Whent was moving it closer.
“This was a remarkable moment to go inside the department and try to understand what they were facing, not only in their day-to-day, but in particular with this challenge of having to reform,” Nicks said. “That was the premise, that was the idea, and I just tell people, ‘I hit record.’”
Nicks filmed training sessions at the police academy with a diverse class of recruits, took a camera on ride alongs with a veteran cop, and attended the series of awkward press conferences where new chiefs were introduced and/or details of a roiling, deepening department scandal were confronted. He also recorded protests and community meetings, vividly capturing the mood on the street. OPD’s dismal track record with respect to black residents has long been a cause for tension, and the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., three years ago served to heighten that tension (and, importantly, inspired an outcry to reform police departments coast to coast).
The sensationalist nature of the OPD scandal, though, in which a woman charged several cops (along with officers from other East Bay law enforcement departments) with sexual exploitation while she was a teenager, marks a turning point in The Force. In a way, it mirrors how headlines overshadowed and devalued gains OPD achieved.
“What we discovered was that reform was working surprisingly well,” Nicks said, sitting on a couch in his compact office in downtown Oakland. “We were surprised by the progress that the department had made. We were surprised by the disconnect between the narrative from the outside, which was critical of the OPD, and the reality of what was happening inside the department. They were a national model. So for it to all come crashing down like that, I still don’t know what to make of it. But to me, all of the progress that they made hasn’t been completely washed away by what happened to the department in the end. It just sits alongside of it. This is the two-narrative idea.”
The Force, which won the Directing Award in the U.S. Documentary competition at the Sundance Film Festival and the Golden Gate Award for Bay Area Documentary Feature at SFFILM Festival, is hardy an apologia for the OPD. But in the current climate, portraying a police force in a nonjudgmental way may be construed as endorsement. Nicks confided that a funder didn’t find an early cut sufficiently hard on the police and threatened to pull its commitment.
“I have a lot of friends who are activists,” Nicks said. “What I grapple with as a human being is how you reconcile fighting for something and trying to see all sides. And to me the simple definition of objectivity is being willing to consider somebody else’s experience, somebody else’s point of view, and being open to representing that point of view with a dignity and with a focus equal to that of another.”
Nicks’ ability to observe with a mix of compassion and detachment derives largely from his own personal history. His father was black and his mother was white, and her father threatened to disown her if she kept Pete. He was adopted by a black family and grew up outside of Boston before enrolling at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
“I got into trouble at Howard, and I went to prison,” Nicks confided. “I got into drugs and got arrested, went to federal prison, got out, kind of had a rocky few years, eventually got my act together and finished at Howard and then, through someone I met at AA, I got involved in journalism and interested in documentary.”
When Nicks learned that the eminent documentary filmmaker Jon Else (The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb) headed UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism’s documentary program, he came West to study with him.
“I’ve been through the system in a variety of different ways: the health-care system as an addict, the criminal justice system as an inmate, and the education system. I’ve been to public schools, private schools; my mom was a public school teacher. I think all of those experiences kind of coalesced into my interest in telling these stories,” Nicks said.
Nicks has a specific wish-list for The Force that includes police academies using it to train new officers. But his overarching strategy, which encompasses his next film on the Oakland public schools, is a furtherance of democratic principles.
“The films I offer to people affect fundamentally how they see themselves in the world and the community in which they live,” he said. “We can’t make the decisions we have to make without having a full understanding of the community in which we live.”
The Force opens Sept. 15 at the California in Berkeley.