A dryly succinct but thoroughly convincing Netflix documentary about the corruptive history of American policing, Yance Ford’s “Power” articulates in the clearest possible terms how 18th century slave patrols and the frontier militias that followed paved the way for a modern police state so violent and unregulated that no democracy would consciously think to invent it.
It begins with a brief voiceover that seems like a targeted overture to the movie’s home audience; the kind of flourish that suggests Ford knew his documentary would bypass a traditional platform rollout in favor of a more geopolitically diverse streaming debut. “This film requires curiosity, or at least suspicion,” the director intones over a black screen. “I’ll leave that choice up to you.”
Tempting as it is to imagine how those words might feel like a trigger warning for any “Blue Lives Matter” types who only started watching “Power” because it auto-played after an episode of “How to Get Away with Murder” or the latest Shane Gillis standup special, Ford’s essay film ultimately requires neither of those things — it commands them. Of course, most of the people who choose to watch this movie will come to it because of the curiosity and suspicion that America’s police force has invited upon themselves through their staggering failures of public safety.
And yet, even for those viewers who already understand the police as a colonial institution, who — by virtue of personal experience or simply by living with eyes wide open — don’t need to hear Ford’s talking heads explain how certain policies are transparent expressions of social control, “Power” lays out its argument with a cut-to-the-bone clarity that crystallizes the enormity of a problem that’s still getting worse. You may not learn anything new by watching this movie, per se, but Ford arranges the history in a way that makes it impossible to escape its scale, and — in the most searing moments of a film that can be a bit too scattered for some of its more abstract inquiries to stick — he follows the facts into the deepest fissures of American identity, until the question of “how did we get here?” self-destructs into the most basic uncertainty over who “we” are and where “here” might even be.
This conceptual approach is a change of pace for Ford, whose “Strong Island” reflected upon racialized violence and criminal justice through a more explicitly personal lens (the film centers on the 1992 murder of Ford’s brother, who was a police officer in training, and the 19-year-old killer who was allowed to go free after an all-white jury declined to indict him), but Ford takes to the essay format with confidence, and the hushed intensity of his voice is never fully diluted by the chorus of other speakers he brings into the mix.
Most of those speakers are university professors who are on hand to relay facts with authority, whether they’re talking about how the government deployed troopers to forcibly displace Indigenous people between 1830 and 1847, introducing August Vollmer as the “father of modern policing,” or offering a few errant details on Stokely Carmichael. Later, “Power” also reserves space for journalist Wesley Lowery to unpack how policing became an essential way for ethnic communities to assimilate towards whiteness (often by targeting other marginalized groups), while an Indian-American New Yorker identified only as Nilesh V pops in to to recount his personal experience being targeted by Stop-and-Frisk. His grievances are more representative than specific, and thus typical of a documentary less interested in drilling all that deep into any of its individual points than it is in threading them altogether so that audiences can better appreciate how power has always begotten power, and — in the words of Frederick Douglass — concedes nothing without demand.
That strategy can feel like an awkward fit for a film that largely identifies policing as an abstract problem made real through personal interactions. Ford tries to reconcile that point with his most frequently highlighted interviewee, a proud Black policeman whose Minneapolis precinct is less than six miles from where George Floyd was murdered, but even his story is underserved by a doc that doesn’t have enough time to unravel its cognitive dissonance and complications (see Peter Nicks’ “The Force” for a deeper investigation on the subject).
Still, “Power” achieves a profoundly unsettling sweep by prioritizing breadth over depth, and Ford’s doc is able to cover a ton of ground as it hopscotches between chapter titles like “PROPERTY” and “STATUS QUO” in order to argue that policing has always served as an instrument to maintain class order. It’s an argument Ford illustrates with a near-constant array of archival material that ranges from bodycam footage to political speeches (in a montage reminiscent of the most damning moments from Ava Duvernay’s “13th,” we see each of the last five or six presidents brag about the massive sums of money they’ve allocated for police funding). Many — if not most — of the clips are excerpted from narrative and/or propaganda films from across the last 100 years, all of which cohere into a living portrait of how the police state has maintained and steadily expanded its power over a century of constant upheaval.
Ford’s answer, if it can be distilled to a single bullet point, is that “police power is immediate power.” It perseveres because, in the context of the life-or-death moments in which it exerts itself, it is absolute. “Bill Clinton can’t pull out a gun and shoot you in the chest,” one of Ford’s interviewees says, but a police officer can. We have all of this footage, scripted and captured alike, but “no one is rewinding to the beginning of the tape to challenge the idea that ‘this is how it’s always been.’” They’re too busy trying to survive the way it is now.