Peter Nicks Navigates Opposing Worlds in 'The Force'
Inspired in part by the HBO series 'The Wire' and drawing on his own experiences with law enforcement, Bay Area filmmaker Peter Nicks of 'The Force' spent two years embedded with the Oakland Police, capturing the most turbulent period in the department's history.
- [Protesters] Hand up! Don't shoot!
Hands up! Don't shoot!
Hands up! Don't shoot!
Hand ups! Don't shoot! Hand ups!
- It is understandable how people
get to a place of deep concern
and anger about law enforcement.
But this issue, it has been flattened out
into a two-dimensional narrative
that I think is not healthy, for anyone.
Cause of the divisiveness
of our culture right now,
the demand is whose side are you on?
- Whose streets? - Our streets!
- To choose a side.
This was a very difficult film for me to make, personally.
Being embedded within a police department
and also stepping outside and seeing
many friends on the front lines protesting the police.
As a filmmaker I wanna try to hit that sweet spot
where people recognize, in each other,
humanity that they might not have seen otherwise.
- My journey of wanting to be a storyteller
actually started in creative writing,
thinking I was gonna do scripted fiction.
And then discovered documentary and really
fell in love with it.
- Paint a picture of me
as a baby sort of growing up as a kid.
Where would you start that story?
- Well, I'd have to say the very first day
we picked you up at the adoption center.
- Growing up a mixed-race kid I've always been pushed
to try to see things from different perspectives.
Navigating my identity, I got in trouble in college
with drugs, went to federal prison.
I've been in and out of rehabs.
I've been in AA and NA meetings
and I've always carried with me
that own complexity within my own soul
and I think that's why I take the approach
that I take with my films.
- No doubt, it was a hit.
- Oh yeah, yeah clearly.
- It was a hit, right now--
- How many rounds fired?
- Right now it's up to twelve casings.
There's some cameras up there.
We're looking at the video to see if we see the car.
- The Force is the second of a trilogy, looking at Oakland
through the lens of it's public institutions.
And that idea of this grand narrative of one American city
was, to some degree, inspired by "The Wire".
- You come at the king,
you best not miss.
- Which really did an amazing job
unpacking the intricacies of Baltimore.
The first television series that really
made me pay attention.
The sort of upending of stereotypes
and the expectations of who people were.
And the juxtaposition of let's say,
a drug dealer and a politician I found fascinating.
And so we tried to some degree,
emulate that in our approach to telling
this nonfiction series.
- [Man's Voice] Here we go!
- [Group] Here we go!
- [Man's Voice] Who are we?
- [Group] Who are we?
- And when we turned our attention
to the story of the police,
- Who are we?
- Who are we?
- My team, my producers, we felt we hadn't really
seen the story from the perspective
of the institution itself that was being taken to task.
- You are gonna start Friday
building a legacy of who you are.
You've heard of dirty cops before.
- Ultimately, the framework of the film
is a two year observation of the OPD attempting to reform.
- You can't put your life on the line
every day and it not mean anything.
- This is the fourth shooting in two months of black men.
- The Department was trying to confront
this problem of implicit bias.
- What could you have said?
- At the same time, trying to keep a city safe.
Our job as documentarians is to take
whatever access we were given and to try
to observe and wait for officers
to reveal themselves to our camera.
And that's the art of the documentary filmmaker
or the photographer, is that moment.
This is where we started many a night,
here at the Eastmont substation.
And we would gear up here and put
our bullet proof vests on here.
And there just tend to be a lot
of 911 activity around this area.
One of the things I noticed right away
was the feeling that I got, being in a police car.
Not the danger piece of it, like I'm gonna get shot
or something like that.
But the gaze.
When we drive through communities we'd see people
looking into that police car.
It was a very antagonistic, you know the enemy
has entered kind of feeling.
And that was really a profound experience for me.
It got me to understand, cops internalize that.
Cause it's every day.
That resentment, that anger.
You can flip that script really easily
going on a basketball court at night
and playing some basketball with a bunch a young black kids.
Police car rolls by and you feel that,
who are, what are you guys up to?
And if cops could experience what it's like
to be a kid on that basketball court,
what it's like to be a kid with that hoody
walking down the street and vice versa.
If those kids could experience what that cops
you know, that would be a game-changer, I think.
- Hey folks, I'm with the man of the hour,
this is Peter Nicks.
- It's true.
This is actually the first time
the film has played in Oakland.
So, I'm excited.
A little nervous.
Members of the O.P.D., the activist community,
people who have really been raising their voice,
calling for accountability,
they're all here.
- What did you learn, most of all,
that you didn't know before?
- That we have to learn how
to hold multiple truths simultaneously,
sometimes that are contradictory.
We discovered that this was a department that was seen
and it was being held forward as a model
for reform in the nation.
- Right, right.
- At the same time, it had sort of an internal,
you know a lot of people described
as a moral rot or toxic culture.
So I think this is really a film
that asks the audience to put those two things side by side
and draw meaning from it.
Wow, we were here with "The Waiting Room" in 2012.
And now we're back with a very different film.
Thank you so much for coming and I present "The Force".
- We were filming two years, basically done with the film,
about to leave for the Sundance Editing Lab
to try to make sense of what was already
a complex film
when a scandal
took them down to a very dark place.
- A press conference just wrapped up a short time ago.
Mayor Libby Schaff was there,
also the Police Chief Sean Whent was there.
And this all is regarding allegations
of sexual misconduct by Oakland police officers.
- Officers sworn to protect and serve
raped and trafficked a teenaged girl from my community.
- Really, it was a punch to the gut.
- I want to assure the citizens of Oakland
that we are hell-bent on rooting out
this disgusting culture.
- As difficult as that film ended
and as tragic as the events that occurred were,
- We all share the same disappointment.
It's seven hundred and fifty something officers ...
- We're hoping that audiences don't lose sight
there's leadership within these departments
trying to make a difference.
- The people are consistently asked
to give them another chance.
- There are activists pushing for change.
- How can we stay silent?
They were not honest
about the values they say the represent.
They covered up corruption.
- You know, with a film, sometimes, it's a collection
of all this cultural material that moves us forward.
- And if you refuse to do what is right,
we will pull down your department, brick by brick.
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