“Police power is immediate power.” These opening words from Redditt Hudson––former police officer and co-founder of the National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice, Reform, and Accountability––haunt and inform the entirety of Yance Ford’s Power. Ford actually opens the film over black, informing viewers that what they are about to see is “an analysis of police history that I’d like you to consider.” At the very least, curiosity is required to wrestle with the facts that will come next.

It’s a straightforward, provocative opening. And Ford’s right to put all their cards on the table. This is a fraught time in America, and directly explaining to those watching that the U.S.A. in fact is, and has been, a police state will be blasphemous for many who stumble upon Power on Netflix. But if those same people come in with consideration, with even a half-open mind, they may see that it’s essentially inarguable. There is no question. The larger question ultimately is: would you rather live in a police state?

This film is blunt and direct to degrees that may disengage some viewers. There are many talking heads, mostly academics. One standout is Charlie Adams, Fourth Precinct Inspector for the Minneapolis Police Department. Here is a working cop who is honest with Ford about the difficulties of policing in the here and now while also acknowledging that policing fundamentally needs to change. His exchanges with Ford are essential. Watch as he recalls riots from his childhood, or more recent tragedies on the streets of Minneapolis.

Ford narrates over powerful archival images, speaking to the film we’re watching. “Is your America and my America the same place?” he asks at one point. Christy Lopez, professor at Georgetown Law, gives some great insight throughout, underlining the harsh truth that nearly all police brutality is technically legal and that “we” are the ones who are unfortunately complicit in that legality. Ford proceeds to challenge Lopez on that pesky word “we.” Who is the we in “we”?

Power is the kind of documentary one might unfairly deem homework––a lot of information and archival footage thrown at the viewer quite methodically. It’s even split into sections with the titles “Violence Work,” “Resistance,” and “Status Quo.” Terms like “Black Codes” and “Qualified Immunity” are defined by on-camera experts. The history of police is traced, building from their inception as slave patrols in the south, municipal policing of maintaining class systems (including union busters) in the north. Ford makes sure to point out what the ongoing solution has been to combat over-policing: more police. More money for the police. It’s doesn’t work, hasn’t worked, and will never work.

Additional, impressive talking heads include Elizabeth Hinton (Professor of History, African American Studies & Law, Yale University), Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (writer, activist, and professor of African American Studies at Northwestern University), and Nikhil Pal Singh (New York University). And while you may well learn new things throughout (this writer, for one, did not know of the fascinating Kerner Commission Report from the late ’60s), the most powerful moments are with subjects like Officer Adams or Nilesh V, a New York resident who succinctly describes the debilitating loss of identity that comes with prejudicial stop-and-frisk practices. To constantly presume guilt instead of innocence will make the most innocent person feel guilty. These bigoted assumptions lead to “probable cause” where there is no cause at all. So much of Power will seem obvious to many who watch it. The hope would be that a few who discover it feel the opposite way and are disabused of their notions. Even optimism as little as that is worth so much.

Power premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival and will be released by Netflix.

Grade: B+

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