Tribeca Film Festival | “Do not resist”

I remember those nights of iodine streetlights and black-suited riot police after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August of 2014. If a singular event can be pointed to as the catalyst for the new Civil Rights Movement, it would be those weeks of civil unrest that turned our national conversation towards police brutality and institutionalized racism, shattering once and for all the myth of a post-racial Obama America. I suspect that in time the shooting and subsequent rioting after Brown’s killer, officer Darren Wilson, was not indicted for his death will go down as a zeitgeist-defining moment much like Woodstock and JFK’s assassination in the sixties, the fall of the Berlin Wall in the eighties, and 9/11 for the aughts. While a fine and compelling film, Craig Atkinson’s new documentary DO NOT RESIST should be lauded first and foremost as an approximate historical document.

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Beginning with authentic footage captured during the Ferguson Riots, Atkinson’s film seeks to dissect the culture of militarized policing that made Brown’s death not only probable but inevitable. First: the combat mentality plaguing our police force exemplified by a training seminar led by Dave Grossman, a bug-eyed lunatic whose frantic declarations that police are fighting a war and must respond to violence with greater violence smack more than a little of fascism (what’s worse—his books are required reading among CIA candidates and many police force trainees). Second: government programs which pump military grade ordinance into suburban and rural police forces who don’t need them. One of the most outrageous segments involves the town council of Concord, New Hampshire, a town with only two murders since 2004, ignoring the desperate pleas of civilians and war vets and purchasing a BEARCAT, an armored personnel carrier designed for combat, with a government grant.

The conclusion: America has brainwashed our police officers into thinking they’re soldiers and then arming them not for Main Street, USA but downtown Fallujah. Is it any wonder that the number of SWAT team raids for mundane services like executing search warrants has skyrocketed? Atkinson follows a SWAT team during one such raid: they smash up a poor black family’s front door, destroy their side windows, and arrest an unarmed, non-resisting young man. What did they find? Only one and a half grams of pot—barely enough for personal use. They ended up releasing the young man the next day, but only after informing the family that they would have to pay for the repairs to their front door and windows and “confiscating” about $800 of the young man’s money intended for his small landscaping business.

The last third of the documentary flounders somewhat as it focuses on the murky, less defined subject of the future of police work vis-à-vis new technology and its potential uses for racial profiling. I can understand Atkinson needing to pad the film out considering that it only runs for seventy minutes but this feels out of place. Still, DO NOT RESIST is the best documentary I’ve seen in months, the first true triumph I’ve seen this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, and an essential snapshot of American history.

Score: 8 out of 10

Nate Hood is Screen Comment’s main film critic in New York. Follow him here @NateHood257