When the world experiences tragedies like 9/11 or the current coronavirus pandemic, it’s tempting to fall back on film analogies, comparing the trauma to respectively, a disaster movie or a post-apocalyptic drama. But after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department — in the wake of other racially motivated acts in New York and Kentucky — I thought about a series of thoughtful Black Lives Matter-centric documentaries that have come out in the last few years, each of them exploring the bigotry still consuming this country, especially when white cops come in contact with Black citizens. On Friday, I reached out to two of those filmmakers to get their reactions and insights into what’s transpiring in Minneapolis — and to ponder if the rest of us could learn anything from yet another senseless killing.
Peter Nicks is the man behind The Force, which won a directing prize at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. The movie spent two years embedded in the Oakland Police Department (OPD), which in 2003 was forced to undergo federal oversight due to a litany of class-action lawsuits and civil-rights abuses. I interviewed Nicks that fall and was impressed that, like his film, he was exceedingly evenhanded in his treatment of the OPD, acknowledging how difficult the job is but also condemning the department’s systemic racism and moral failures. “Until the [the cops and the community] find some way of coming together to say, ‘We have common goals,’ you’re going to continue to see all these problems,” Nicks told me back then. “The aggressiveness and defensiveness will always remain when it’s about ‘Whose side are you on?’”
Smriti Mundhra co-directed St. Louis Superman, which was nominated this year for the Academy Award for Best Short-Subject Documentary. The film followed Bruce Franks Jr., a mid-30s Black man who’s elected to the Missouri House of Representatives, which is predominantly white and Republican. Franks, an occasional battle rapper whose brother Christopher was fatally shot in 1991, understood firsthand about the consequences of Black-on-Black crime, but in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s murder by the Ferguson police, he decided he needed to work within the political system to bring about change. Like The Force, St. Louis Superman is an urgent portrait from the frontline of America’s racial crisis. Both films are clear-eyed but also cautiously optimistic. Again, though, I wondered how their makers’ sense of hope was faring this week.
What follows are my separate interviews with Nicks and Mundhra. Neither filmmaker claimed to have any answers for how to cure the police’s too-often-fatal interactions with African-Americans. But they still had plenty to say.
Peter Nicks, Director of The Force
Before we start, I’m just curious how you’re reacting to everything that’s happening in Minneapolis.
There’s so many layers right now. We’re coping with a global trauma — the loss of control around the pandemic — and then these issues regarding policing and abusive behavior by these police officers is another trauma. But that [latter trauma] we’ve been experiencing intermittently for decades, if not since the dawn of policing. In recent years, though, it’s become elevated because of the advent of cellphones and our ability to document these incidents, [going back to] Rodney King.
My initial feelings are more along the lines of concern — significant concern — that because of our destabilized state right now that we’re at great risk for getting out of control in terms of how the public is going to respond to this recent string of events. Because it wasn’t just George Floyd — you had the Amy Cooper situation in Central Park, and you had Breonna Taylor in Kentucky. You’ve had a string of incidents that tumble on top of each other. I’m quite concerned that people’s frustration will get amplified and we’re going to see some violence. We’re going to have to decide as a society how we’re going to respond to this.
I’m worried. But I’m also reminded that this is why we made the film, which is about these questions [of] “How do you change this situation? How do you fix this?” The answers to that, I think, are remarkably complicated.
When these [recent] stories started breaking, I was thinking of the cops that I’ve gotten to know over the years that I have great affection for and respect for — they far outnumber guys like [Derek Chauvin], who did what he did, and others who [create] these traumas. The fact that [bad cops] are able to have that impact — despite the number of people who are trying to change on a systemic level and an individual level [how the police conduct themselves] — is deeply dispiriting to me. It makes me think we need to continue telling these stories. Storytelling is going to be a vital part of how we’re able to make sense of this and to find our values as a nation and heal on some level. Clearly a tremendous amount of healing needs to take place, and these incidents are symptomatic of deeper embedded ills in our society and culture.
The good cops you know, what can they do in a moment like this? How do they demonstrate they’re not part of the problem?
[The Oakland Police Department] just sent out a statement [condemning Floyd’s killing]. So that’s one thing that [good cops] can do: Speak out and mean it.
The other thing is to change the narrative. One very important message that I’d give to leaders in police departments all around the country is not to fall back into the same narrative that we’ve articulated in defense of good cops, which is, “Oh, there’s only a few bad apples in the bunch.” That’s a very disingenuous argument, and it clearly misses the point.
Amy Cooper was a woman who weaponized her understanding of this dynamic in a relationship between an African-American male and law enforcement with her saying, “My life is being threatened by an African-American man.” There’s only one connotation there, right? There’s only one end result that you can imagine there — and that’s deeply, deeply troubling. I think that speaks to these deeply embedded biases and fears that we have about each other, and it also speaks to how we allow our fear and our emotions to put people at great risk — not just people but also put the society at great risk. It destabilizes our democracy, because police represent a cornerstone of our democracy — I mean, some may argue with that, but right now, as constituted, they’re a very important part of allowing our democracy to function.
Knowing where we were at psychologically with the pandemic, [I had] a fear that this thing would get out of control. Anyone of a certain age remembers what happened at Kent State. Anytime I hear about the National Guard [being called in], I think of Kent State. You can go back to 1992 and the L.A. riots, but there was something about Kent State that stuck with me, probably because it happened when I was very young. It was one of the first times where I saw the state kill people — young people, idealistic people, people who had dreams and their lives ahead of them. So I think there’s a very thin line right now between order and chaos.
The whole point [of The Force] was to let people know that there were cops trying to do good things and [bring about] reform — we have a very urgent and present need for oversight and reform. And now the Oakland Police Department has the strongest citizen review board in the country — it’s very clear that that concept needs to be expanded [across the U.S.], because we cannot have this kind of destabilization. We cannot allow one bad cop to get in there and destabilize an entire nation with their actions, which are driven by god knows what — their own insecurities, their upbringing, their bias, their racism. There’s a whole variety of reasons why cops do bad things.
The Force showed how citizen overview worked for the Oakland Police Department. Is that the answer for Minneapolis?
[Citizen overview] works on certain levels, but it doesn’t prevent what happened in Minneapolis from happening. What happened in Minneapolis can happen in Oakland tomorrow — well, maybe not tomorrow because [this incident] is so fresh and present that I think every cop everywhere, whether they’re a self-aware racist or not, is going to be on guard. But then what happens is, time marches on, and we fall back into our patterns and routines, and we lose that perspective. We lose that self-regulation.
Really, the laws need to be stricter or the regulations need to be stricter. The reforms need to happen in the criminal justice system. It’s like a Panopticon: If you know you’re being watched, your behavior would change. If you know you’re going to go to jail for 10 years for doing certain things, that [bad] behavior will change.
But one of the things we recognized when we were making the film was that a big barrier to police reform are the police unions. Their job is to keep cops from being prosecuted, and their unions are strong. They have very tight relationships with the politicians — the union heads are politicians themselves. And then there’s the criminal justice system itself — some laws are designed to protect cops. The idea is that, because cops are in situations where their lives are threatened, they need to have flexibility and freedom to act in the interest of their own self-preservation or in the interest of preservation of a community. That’s something that needs to be addressed.
But reform will come from training [when cops are still in the academy], it will come from the criminal justice system deterrents and it will come from within the police unions. I see that as like a triangle.
There’s a perception that a lot of male cops are these tough, swaggering, macho types.
It’s a stereotype, and I’m just basing it on all the cops that I’ve met. There’s a lot of cops that went to Berkeley who are nerds. In the military, you get yahoo guys who just [want] to fire the biggest weapon that they can fire and get into a fight, and that also exists within the police. There are a healthy number of cops who are tough guys. And I think there’s a perception [among some cops] that, “If I show weakness on the street, I’m going to get taken advantage of,” particularly in neighborhoods that get more crime and more violence. Those neighborhoods are also stereotyped incorrectly — like, “the hood” or “the inner city” isn’t just full of “gangbangers” and people who want to try to shoot you. That’s a small percentage of what happens, but we don’t tell those stories.
There are all kinds of misperceptions, and the cops themselves are driven a lot by [those misconceptions to believe] that if they don’t show toughness that they’re going to get taken advantage of. And that’s just [faulty] thinking. It’s like trying to parent a child who has emotional problems — you have to learn to validate the child’s trauma, because a lot of what police encounter in terms of what is bad behavior is simply the result of generational trauma, community trauma. That needs to be approached more like social work or a therapeutic mindset rather than [with] an aggressive mindset.
You see in [police] training that those conversations are happening, and you’re seeing more women being brought in [as chiefs of police] to try to change the culture. It’s just that it takes time. It’s generational. It’s not going to happen overnight and, unfortunately, the pain that we see reflected on our screens [right now] is part of what has to happen in order for us to come to these insights. Pain and suffering leads you to insights and perspective — that’s the hope. We have to hold on to that amidst this pain that we’re in right now.
Your film also showed what it’s like to be in the midst of a heated protest. How does a cop handle a protest “right”?
I’ve always wanted to make a movie about the psychology of a riot. It’s kind of like a tornado: There’s certain conditions in the atmosphere that are swirling where it can stay [peaceful], but then there’s some that line up in a certain way and there can be acute violence that comes on very quickly and destructively.
What I learned in making The Force was that the line between order and chaos is razor-thin in a large American city — and the police aren’t equipped to handle that. The only way to deal with that is militarily — first, the National Guard, and then potentially the military — because, in a city of 450,000 people, how many cops are there? Eight hundred. That’s impossible to contain if it tips [over into violence].
I think police know that, and they also know what will happen if they lose control of the situation. I’ve seen it — I’ve been there when it’s teetering, and you’re seeing it in Minneapolis. And there’s no good answer for that. One of the most dangerous potential situations is a riot in an American city, and I don’t know if there’s any level of training [that can prepare for that].
Your film included Cat Brooks, an outspoken critic of the OPD who argued that the police should be abolished. With situations like Floyd’s murder, it’s hard not to be sympathetic to her argument.
I’ve always felt the abolition concept was more of a symbol of an idea rather than a legitimate policy that could be reasonably implemented in a democracy. Inevitably, you would have the same thing — the revolutionary who takes over the country becomes the oppressor. Somebody would have to be responsible for dealing with the existence of crime. Who would that be? The citizens that used to be protestors, now they’re basically cops.
And, by the way, she changed [that stance] a little bit when she ran for mayor [in 2018].
If you’re running for mayor, you can’t just speak to a niche group — you have to speak to a large constituency — and the boarder constituency isn’t going to go along with abolishing the police department. You’re not going to be elected mayor saying, “On Day One, I’m going to dismantle the police.” What are we going to replace it with? It’s a very complicated idea.
When we talked three years ago, you identified yourself as both a mixed-race filmmaker and a Black filmmaker. I was wondering how your racial identity factors into your reactions to what you’re seeing on the news.
I’m mixed-race because my birth mother is white and my birth father is Black, but I’m Black because I was adopted and raised by a Black family and went to Howard University. That’s my identity, but I was never grabbed and thrown on the ground by a cop. I can wear a hoodie for the most part — I can walk into stores and I don’t feel people watching me. The racism I’ve experienced in life has been very subtle — I have to really be attuned just to know if it’s happening or not.
But I hear the stories of my dad. He faced tremendous racism growing up in the South — he’s the first in his family to go to college — and he internalized all that and became an alcoholic because Black men can’t show their vulnerability by sharing their emotions. Again, if you’re showing weakness, you’ll be taken advantage of. So I carry those things with me all the time. I had a connection to the Black church growing up — my dad organized the Martin Luther King breakfast in our church that became one of the biggest MLK breakfasts in the Northeast over the years — and having proximity to that and going to Howard really primed me for empathy and understanding. Even though I didn’t experience the violence and the direct racism myself, I deeply understand it.
At the same time, I have an ability to move between groups of people — I’ve had a lot of white friends. I went to a private school growing up, and so, I had a lot of white friends in high school. But I went to Howard for college, so I’m comfortable in both environments. I’m able to listen to people.
Do you think we may have to accept that these types of tragedies will always happen — i.e., that you can never eradicate them completely?
I believe this is a reflection of deeper ills in our society that need to be addressed that go back to the birth of our nation. In particular, it relates to the relationship between African-American communities and the police. It can expand into other interactions, whether it’s with Hispanics or refugees, but there’s pretty significant data that [indicates] African-Americans and the police bear the brunt of these interactions.
My last name is Nicks, and my great-great-grandfather was a slave. It wasn’t that long ago. The family that owned our family was named Nix, and when the slaves were freed, they would change their name. We changed our name to Nicks. You can go into the South, and you see these families [spelled] Nix — those are the slave owners, and they became sharecroppers. Those stories have become lost, and they’re related to what’s happening now between the police and the African-American community — at its core, that’s the problem [between the two groups].
And The Force showed how the OPD is doing just that in its academy, teaching cadets about how the Black Panthers formed as a response to Oakland’s racist treatment of its Black citizens.
The most progressive police departments in the country — and there’s a number of them — implement this bias training. Some of it’s historical and talk about the Panthers and talk about slavery, almost like a college class. Some of it’s very focused on inherent bias training. There are a number of police departments around the country who are looking at body-cam footage and studying it to try to pick up on how officers are treating people in the community. Do they treat Black people differently than white people? How do they speak to Black people? How do they speak to white people?
A lot of police departments are trying to do it, and we need a lot more doing it in the academies and, ideally, expanding the pool of people that might be interested in becoming a cop. We need more qualified candidates who are psychologically [fit]. We don’t send an astronaut to the International Space Station who you’re not sure about their mental state. You’ve seen the movie The Right Stuff: They do, like, deep psychological testing, and that’s what we need for cops. The pool of astronauts is small but the [number of] people who want to be astronauts is massive, so you’re able to pick only people with the right stuff. We actually need the same thing in our police departments.
That seems eminently reasonable.
I’m deeply concerned by what I’m seeing [on the news], but I’m also reminded of the urgency of the question that my film raised: “What role do we have moving forward for oversight and reform and, in particular, civilian input in our police departments?” Because, clearly, what we’re doing isn’t enough. Even though we need to give ourselves some time for this generational change to take place, there are more acute problems that need to be addressed.
We’re starting to see some movement because [Chauvin] has been arrested on charges of third-degree murder. Five years ago, this officer wouldn’t have been arrested. That’s the result of the last several years of pressure from activists, reformers, academics, journalists, filmmakers and, in some cases, police departments themselves to hold officers accountable for their actions.
And some Minnesota lawmakers are now asking for more oversight over the state’s police force.
Look at something super-complex like putting Apollo 11 on the moon. Look at the number of people involved in that and the potential for mistakes. How many mistakes were made? Very few, if any. We need to come at policing with that same mentality: Zero tolerance. Same thing with a pilot flying a giant jet plane full of people: You have your checklist, and you have just absolutely zero tolerance for mistakes because people’s lives are on the line. We’ve got to treat one life similar to how we treat the lives of a plane full of people.
Smriti Mundhra, Co-Director of St. Louis Superman
On Tuesday, you tweeted to “Non-Black People” like yourself, saying, “Our outrage isn’t going to bring back the dead or keep the vulnerable alive.” I was curious what in particular prompted that?
I work in Black media — I follow what’s happening with these stories — and inevitably when there’s a video [like the George Floyd murder], all of us tweet and talk about how this has to stop. It often feels performative to me — I always want to know, “Well, what are we doing? Are we just forgetting about it until the next video shows a Black person being killed by police or by somebody else, and then we express our outrage again?” I felt the need, when these kinds of things happen, not to offer generic outrage or condolences or support to my Black friends and colleagues. [I wanted] to speak to my community of non-Black people: South Asians, Asians, Latinx people, anyone. But particularly Asians and South Asians — I think we sometimes wear the mantle of being minorities, but we also have a lot of privileges that other minorities don’t have. We can sort of go back and forth, but we have a lot of responsibility to make sure we’re speaking up and supporting when it counts and in a way that counts. It’s time for action, not outrage.
I imagine that was part of the reason you made St. Louis Superman: Bruce Franks Jr. is someone trying to bring about change through the system.
His story is interesting because he’s actually been looking for solutions. He’s looking to go past outrage and protest — he’s not leaving [them] behind because he’s very much incorporated that as part of his toolkit — but he’s an activist and a state representative. He was focused on “We have to do something. Outrage isn’t enough. We have to do something. We have to try to find a way to change things.” And that’s always very inspiring.
We very purposefully wanted to show in the film the toll [activism] takes on people like Bruce. I have friends who are journalists who are Black who have to cover these deaths and these killings and watch these videos over and over again. At the same time, they’re worried about their sons and their daughters and their friends [when they’re] driving, jogging, doing whatever. They’re dealing with trauma and then also trying to process that trauma for the rest of us. I saw the toll that it was taking on Bruce.
It’s important for us to know that Black people in this country are experiencing trauma in a very unique [way]. If we want to truly be allies — if we want to truly help, if we truly feel gutted when we watch the video of George Floyd or the video of Ahmaud Arbery — we have to not just express our outrage on social media. We can’t constantly ask Black people, “What can we do? How do we fix this?” We have to find ways to fix it ourselves. They say charity begins at home — these tough conversations begin at home. What are we going to say to our children? What are we going to say to our relatives? How are we going to address these things in our own lives and our own communities so that it lessens the burden that Black people have to deal with on top of all the trauma?
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I’ve seen many people tweeting about the importance of voting. Do you think that’s the answer?
I’ll be completely honest with you: I don’t think so. I don’t think voting is the answer to systemic oppression and police brutality. We had it under Republican presidents and Democratic presidents. We had it under a Black president. I think voting is a very important tool toward justice — at the very least, [you might get] a president or local elected official in office that’s receptive to the message that you’re putting out. When you have somebody in office who doesn’t care if you live or die, that becomes a much harder proposition. But it starts with not only voting, but holding the people who are in elected office accountable while they’re in office: organizing, protesting, telling nuanced stories.
Also, we need to change the root of all this. Black people — particularly Black men — are looked at as a threat. And that comes down to what I do, which is storytelling. If Black people are only portrayed in the media as “thugs” and “gangsters” and drug dealers, that’s the perception that’s going to bake into people’s minds. It’s going to manifest the next time there’s a situation between a police officer and a Black individual.
I feel optimistic now that there are more people like Bruce running for office, from the local to the national level. That’s a big part of the reason that Ahmaud Arbery’s killers are in prison right now — and George Floyd’s killer was arrested. We have to make noise, but we have to have people in office that are going to hear that noise and feel pressured by it.
Each tragedy is unique, but because you spent time in Ferguson after the protests, I’m curious if you see any correlation between that and Minneapolis.
Ferguson was a turning point. I feel like it was the start of the modern-day Civil Rights Movement. Bruce has an amazing speech where he gave a talk to a group of high school kids in a very wealthy private school in St. Louis the first day we filmed. That speech didn’t make it into the film, but I posted a clip from it on my Twitter account.
He was explaining why Ferguson happened the way it did. If you only watch the news, you think, “Well, one 18-year-old boy was killed and now suddenly people are looting and lighting fires at gas stations?” Bruce did an amazing job of explaining it with an analogy of shaking a Sprite bottle. You’re constantly — for years and years and years — shaking that can of soda because of all the reasons of systemic oppression, like wage inequality, racism, education inequality. And then something like Michael Brown’s death happens — it’s like taking the top off the soda that’s been shaken and everything explodes.
When you have moments like what’s [going on] in Minneapolis, that’s what’s happening. Within the last few weeks, we learned about George Floyd’s death, Ahmaud Arbery’s death, Breonna Taylor, the incident with Christian Cooper, Sean Reed — it was nonstop with this kind of news, and with lack of accountability. Minneapolis is that top coming off the shaken soda bottle.
I hope people really think about why people are looting and how we can support people who are looting and so-called “rioting” and think about what has led to this moment. Historically, every major social change that has happened in this country, from the Boston Tea Party to the Civil War to Ferguson, has been the result of “rioting.”
Just the word “rioting” seems to have a loaded, negative connotation.
It’s important to put it in the context of history. The Boston Tea Party, in today’s terms, would be considered a riot — it would be considered looting. How many millions of dollars’ worth of tea [went] in the harbor? If we want “rioting” to stop, we should all take part in understanding the reason for it and the cause for it. When someone burns down a Target, you have to put them in prison — we talk about accountability when it comes to the protesters, but we haven’t addressed accountability and justice when it comes to the incidents that started these events.
Bruce quotes Martin Luther King often — I know a lot of people do. But Bruce always says, “Everybody likes to quote Martin Luther King when we want to talk about keeping the peace,” but [Bruce’s] favorite Martin Luther King quote is “Rioting is the language of the unheard.” So who’s not listening?
I’m curious: Have you personally experienced any protests that got violent?
The protests that I’ve attended have been nonviolent. Bruce was part of a group called the Peacekeepers — literally, their job was to stand between a mass of protesters and the police and keep the peace. They focused on the purpose [of the protest], like protesting at a mall on Black Friday or shutting down the highway one time.
Almost all of the protest that he was involved with as a leader has been nonviolent. And peaceful protest and nonviolent protest, he taught me, are two different things. Peaceful protest isn’t really effective because protest is [meant] to disrupt [people’s] day in some way — the point is to get people to pay attention and think. Nonviolent protest is very effective, and that’s the thing that he really has mastered.
What did Franks teach you about how to be good at nonviolent protest?
With Bruce, everything’s part of a strategy. Protest must be strategic — it can’t just be like Occupy Wall Street, where you’re taking up space and making noise but you have no plan beyond that. So for him, it was always strategy: “If I close down this mall in this district on Black Friday, that’s going to have an economic impact. That’s going to put pressure on people to come to the table, and then we can talk about what the solutions are.” He has a wonderful ability to communicate — he was one of the most effective bipartisan members of the House of Representatives in Missouri. With his hoodie and the face tattoos, this 34-year-old Black man had many friends on the other side of the aisle and people who came to bat for him.
He always says, “We can set aside the things that we don’t agree on, but let’s focus on our common interests.” We all feel outrage and we all want to burn everything down — that’s a natural human instinct when you’re feeling enraged by the injustice that’s happening in the world. But it takes cooler heads to slow everyone down and [be] somebody that both sides can trust: “I understand your anger, I understand your frustration, but let’s focus on the problem and how we solve the problem.” He started a minority policing initiative where he was involved with recruiting minorities to become police officers: “The more of us are in there, the more we can start changing the system.”
I remember him telling me a story about how he [ran a forum] and invited half police officers and half community leaders, but everyone was in plain clothes. He didn’t tell anyone which ones are the cops and which ones are the community leaders. Everyone started talking about the issue of policing in Black communities — police violence and things like that. It was only [after] everyone started engaging with the dialogue that he revealed, “Well, half of the people in here are police officers.” I think he recognized that once [people] see a uniform and badge, you’re going to come [into the discussion] with bias.
In the end, did making St. Louis Superman really make any difference?
[Long pause] I hope so. I really hope so. I do think that what we do matters because we see the world through entertainment. The more times you see a Muslim man on TV shown as a terrorist, the more in real life you’re going to look at every Muslim person you see on a plane and think, “Is that a terrorist?” But just as media has the power to implant those biases, it also has the power to deconstruct them and change them. I think we have a huge responsibility to do that. The images that we see, it’s what our kids are going to grow up believing the world to be.
Look, St. Louis Superman was an incredible experience. It did incredibly well. It got an Oscar nomination. My career grew by leaps and bounds over the past year because of that film. I have profited from that film — I don’t mean in a literal sense but in an existential sense. So I can’t now walk away and say, “Well, I got my Oscar nomination, I got my acclaim, and now my work is done.” I have profited from Bruce’s story and from the community he represents, so it’s my responsibility to do the work and not just walk away. Filmmakers have a lot more privilege than other people. It’s important that we take that responsibility seriously. It’s not enough to just make a film. We have to do more — we have to really live the example that we put out there.
In terms of media representations, I think the problem is also that we’ve had so many cop shows and cop movies over the years, and the majority of them portray police officers as nuanced, complex, decent people. They are, with some exceptions, unquestionably the good guys — and therefore without flaw.
As an Indian-American woman who lives in the suburbs of L.A., I can send my kids out in the world and I can tell them, “If you are in any danger, go to the police.” I know what that interaction is going to be like. I don’t think Bruce can say the same for his kids. A Black parent [has] to tell their young child, “I know the media’s telling you that cops are good, but that may not be your experience.” That’s a tough conversation to have — that’s one of the first steps [toward] taking away that child’s innocence.
That’s the fundamental thing we have to address. I want to believe that we can get to a place in this country where those ideas [could] be true — you know, where police are members of their community and there to protect and serve. I want to believe that that’s possible. But we have work to do to get there.