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Before they killed him, Kenneth Chamberlain told police that he was fine and did not need their help. He asked them politely to go away from his front door. Before they killed him, he asked 60 times. Even as the real-life case is reopened, a must-see film about Chamberlain’s terrible death continues on the festival circuit. From writer/director David Midell, The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain recreates, almost in real time, what happened to the elderly former Marine in White Plains, New York, when police decided to break down his door.

Thanks to audio and video evidence and eyewitness reports, the facts of the 2011 case are not in dispute. Chamberlain was sleeping and rolled over on a medic alert button by accident. That triggered an emergency response, and police were sent to his apartment to check on him and make sure he was okay. They were called around 5 am. Despite Chamberlain’s assurances that he did not need help and despite his knowledge of the law — that he was not obligated to open his door as there was no warrant and no
probable cause — police insisted that they were coming inside. They broke down his door. By 7 am, Chamberlain was dead.

The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain is a completely riveting film, mostly thanks to pacing and performance. Frankie Faison (The Wire) stars as Chamberlain, a man of 70 with age-related health problems and some psychiatric issues. His heart problems and bi-polar disorder were known to the police who came to his house. Faison’s understated performance centres the movie. The viewer sees a senior in his own apartment, wakened by the police banging on his door. Initially, Chamberlain is a bit
befuddled, but once he’s fully awake he is otherwise perfectly reasonable. He asks the monitoring company to cancel the emergency call. He politely informs the police their help is not needed. As the situation begins to escalate, he calmly tells his adult children on the phone that he will handle things.

One constant throughout is his obvious fear and distrust of the police, which prove to be well founded.
On the other side of Chamberlain’s apartment door, the police are using a very different playbook in which general assumptions about race/economic status/crime underpin everything. Their own power is their main focus. How the situation spirals out of control sits squarely with toxic police culture and is believably conveyed via writing and performance. (Some of the statements police bark at
Chamberlain sound like Hollywood hyperbole, all over-the-top vitriol and racial slurs; at the final credits, audio recordings of the actual event replay the police saying those exact words; it is beyond disturbing.)

The responding officers are played by Steve O’Connell, Enrico Natale and Ben Marten; as Bradley Cooper made evident in The Place Beyond The Pines, you can cover a lot of backstory with a bad haircut and a police uniform. As the story unfolds, Chamberlain’s very real fear of the cops is underlined by the paranoia and hair-trigger tempers among the men in blue at his door. A simple health check
becomes what they see as a potential crime scene they cannot ignore, although there is zero evidence of anything wrong in the apartment. The incident then grows into what they perceive as a challenge to their authority, power and control.

The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain excels in the creation of claustrophobia and dread; Chamberlain’s plight as a man literally and figuratively trapped by forces beyond his control is devastating to witness. The movie is almost impossible to watch. Even without George Floyd or Stephon Clark or Atatiana Jefferson or Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery, you already know how the story ends — there’s 400 years of history to inform that certain knowledge.

Police killings of unarmed black American men, women and children was just business as usual until the iPhone could bear witness, although technology has mostly changed the legal aftermath, and not the murders. In Kenneth Chamberlain’s case, none of the officers involved was charged, despite a complete audio recording of events (made by the LifeAid Device in his house), some police video, and DNA evidence that he was unarmed. (As of June 1 this year, the legal battle was reopened when the Second Circuit of Appeals ruled a federal judge was wrong to dismiss parts of a lawsuit against the police.)

The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain should be required viewing. Showing it in schools would be an excellent first step; those who lead their lives without invasive police surveillance always ask, “How can this happen?” and The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain provides an answer. The movie premiered at the Austin Film Festival and won the Audience Award and the Narrative Jury Award. At the Omaha Film Festival it won Audience Award for best feature film, and it won Best Feature at the Oxfrd Film Festival.

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Liz Braun

Liz Braun is a film critic for the Sun Media newspaper chain in Canada.