"It's not about good apples and bad apples": Netflix doc "Power" traces the history of US policing

Director Yance Ford discusses how policing isn't objective in the US and why we should record police on our phones

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 18, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

Power (Courtesy of Netflix)
Power (Courtesy of Netflix)

Yance Ford understands how easy it is for the public to become numbed to images of violence that police commit against citizens. The ubiquity of cell phone cameras means that not a week passes without someone uploading images showing an officer employing excessive force against an unarmed person – especially right now, with protests against Israel’s war in Gaza taking place on college campuses throughout the nation.

Despite how difficult these scenes can be to watch the "Strong Island" director stressed the importance of citizens filming the police as a matter of public safety. “The cellphone camera has really disrupted the police’s ability to be the sole source of the narrative,” Ford told Salon in a recent interview conducted over Zoom. “More than anything else in a society that has yet to figure out how to regulate its police, the ability of citizens to generate narratives that reveal that police are engaged in a specific kind of calibrated storytelling is so important.”

"The discretion of each officer ... each of those people has the ability to make a legal decision to take your life."

His latest film, “Power,” adds to that effort by placing the audience in the roles of active witness and participant. With insights from academics, journalists, and current and former law enforcement officials, “Power” helps us to make sense of the historical reasons why our policing system is flawed beyond reform through what Ford describes as an essay style of filmmaking.

In a style that is equally straightforward and meditative, Ford takes a subject that has been touched upon many times and presents it as an invitation to sit with difficult questions. The most sobering may be the question of who, exactly, is “we” in discussions of what degree of agency regular citizens hold over the taxpayer-funded forces who protect us, one of several topics we examined in our conversation. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The seeds of this project began in 2020, as you’ve said in other reports. But I'm also wondering if part of it was inspired by your approach to the storytelling you employed in “Strong Island” as well.

The parts of power that have something in common with “Strong Island” are really centered around the first-person voice that I bring to the film, this kind of essayistic, intimate conversation that I'm looking to have with the audience. It's very present in “Strong Island,” much more so because I'm on camera. With "Power," I begin the film with an invitation and an acknowledgment that some people might watch this film because they’re curious about what I have to say about policing, and some might watch because they're suspicious of what I have to say. But whether it's that sort of 30,000-foot view of this institution or the very intimate view of my family “Strong Island,” there is something about the directedness and about the essay form that I like and I take to very well. At a certain point, we recognized that the film needed my voice. So that's why it got folded in.

I appreciate that you characterize "Power" as an essay film because one of the things I wanted to speak to you about is what you think that changes on the part of the receiver. The idea of incorporating the documentary style, with personal, but also the artistic choices that you make that change the flow from a classic piece of journalistic filmmaking. How do you perceive that making a difference in terms of how we take in this information?

I think that the more artistic quality that we brought to “Power” was really about helping the film be grounded in people's lived experience, as opposed to a journalistic experience which, by training has to sort of pick an objective point of view. Policing in the in the United States isn't objective. It’s a very subjective institution, driven by a set of assumptions that all of us live every day — assumptions that really shape our interactions with police. 

And so, you know, we wanted there to be a clear conversation in the archival material, between the past and the present . . . asking the audience direct questions, like, who is “we”? Where is “here,” right? None of those questions in the film are rhetorical. 

I'm glad that you brought up that moment in the film when there is a pause, an intentional stop where we hear you off-camera kind of processing this concept of “we.” And then you ask that question, of “Who is ‘we’?”  For me answer given by the expert –

Her name is Christy Lopez.

Thank you. The answer she gave was, to me, almost open-ended and sort of unsatisfying, but I wondered if that was the point.  Am I incorrect in that interpretation?

No, you are absolutely correct. Christy Lopez is a brilliant person. She oversaw the consent decree from the Justice Department in the city of Ferguson. [Lopez is currently a Professor from Practice at Georgetown Law, and previously served as a Deputy Chief in the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice.] 

Lopez had an absolute answer to that question. We left it in the realm of the ambiguous because we wanted the audience to sit with that kind of gut-punch explanation that she gives just a moment before I say, “Who is 'we'?” which is that everything that the police do is perfectly legal.

That phrase, “perfectly legal,” after you've seen everything that's come before that moment in the film, I think is really an important one for people to stop and consider. Because the legality of police action is often decided in the moment, right, by the discretion of an individual officer, which on another level means that the discretion of each officer at 18,000 departments across the country, each of those people has the ability to make a legal decision to take your life. 

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It's not about good apples and bad apples. It's not about . . . generations of reform efforts that haven't worked and haven't produced the kind of change that people want. On a very basic level, it's up to each officer that we encounter. That means that every encounter we have with the police has the potential to go completely off the rails, depending on what that person considers to be reasonable force, whether it's the use of deadly force or just to subdue someone. 

And that is really something that should cause everyone to stop. In the lived experience of this country, that means that you can't possibly know what to expect if somebody pulls you over and somebody wants to search your bag, if somebody wants to stop and frisk you. Or if you call the police, for example, to reestablish order in what you consider to be a dangerous or disorderly situation, you have no idea how those officers are going to react and if they're going to be aligned with what your idea of order is. So the multitude of interpretations of the law and how it is applied to us is where we wanted to leave people.

Throughout the film, we keep returning to this ride-along that you do with a Black police officer, listening to him talking about his experiences, but also seeing him meeting with the community. And when we think about policing, and I say this as a Black citizen, we hope that every police officer is that mindful. Can you talk about your decision to include him and what that brings to your argument?

Yeah, so there are a couple of things. It was important for us to follow Charlie Adams because he is a Black police officer, because he has the experience of being in uniform, treated as a police officer, and, being out of uniform, treated as a Black man. And it's really important for people to know that switch is real, and it's lived by just about every officer of color. 

Charlie Adams is also somebody who doesn't live in the community where he grew up, but he chose to serve the community where he grew up. And it is facing a different set of problems [today]. It's facing a lot of violence, facing a lot of youth crime. And he wants to solve these problems. 

"Is this how police should be responding to civil disobedience?"

But he's kind of caught between a rock and a hard place, because he is an example of someone who has the best intentions, but in the end, his intentions are limited by the parameters of the institution in which he works. And the goal of the institution that he works in, and the institution in the Minneapolis Police Department, is to send the kids that he's trying to save . . . to a residential environment that’s barely a step down from incarceration for young people. So for me, Charlie is really important, because he shows us that the best intentions don't matter. At the end of the day, the institution is the greatest power in policing.

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August brings the 10th anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing which led to the Ferguson uprisings. But right now, of course, this is coming to us on Netflix and in theaters at the same time as all the pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses. What are you hoping that this will add to the conversation?

You know, there's so many conversations happening about the protests right now from lots of different angles. What I hope “Power” can bring to that conversation, is the realization that what we are seeing on campuses now, and the militarized response to civil disobedience, is a very old pattern. 

There's footage in the film from 1930 where they're talking about these new troop carriers that have room for 10 men, machine guns, tear gas bombs and other riot equipment. Nothing in that scene of the film, for example, is about fighting crime. Everything in that scene, from the machine guns to the tear gas bombs to the ambiguously titled riot equipment, is about containing and controlling civilians. 

And what we see now, and see the beginnings of in “Power,” is how that militarization has grown and evolved over the last 50 or 60 years. 

What the police have gotten really good at is using military techniques to subdue civil disobedience. I think that we need to be asking ourselves, is this what the role of policing is in our society? Is this how police should be responding to civil disobedience? We saw in the Civil Rights movement, how police responded to peaceful protesters. We saw in 1968 how police responded to the takeover at Columbia University. We're seeing now the police respond to most of these campus protests with a level of militarization that would have you think that there's an armed presence on these campuses.  For the most part, these have been peaceful protests until the police were introduced into the equation.  The fact that we haven't learned that the introduction of armed police in riot gear and military outfits is the thing that tips peaceful protest into violent confrontation says how much policing has insulated itself from the lessons of history.

"Power" is currently streaming on Netflix.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Interview Netflix Police Policing Power Yance Ford