From ‘Compton’ to ‘The Black Panthers’ to ‘Peace Officer,’ a Raw and Resonant Conversation


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A scene from “Peace Officer,” a documentary about the growth of military-style police tactics in Utah.

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Submarine Deluxe/Gravitas Ventures

Before the August release of his smash feature “Straight Outta Compton,” about the ribald ’80s gangster rap group N.W.A., the director F. Gary Gray figured he would be spending a lot of time taking questions about vulgar language in music. Stanley Nelson, whose documentary “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” opened in September, worried that audiences seeing footage of the oft-armed ’60s radicals might surmise that he was advocating that activists carry guns.

What neither filmmaker saw coming was how each of the films would be swept into a larger national conversation about police brutality and race.

“Straight Outta Compton” follows the rise of N.W.A. against the backdrop of police harassment in the Los Angeles area. “The Black Panthers” traces the chilling strategies employed by the police in major cities and by the federal government to criminalize and destroy the movement. In the wake of protests over the police killing of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., and with the advent of the Black Lives Matters campaign, the movies, along with the documentary “Peace Officer,” suddenly felt deeply relevant. This despite the fact that only one of the films incorporated any references to recent events.

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O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Ice Cube in “Straight Outta Compton,” F. Gary Gray’s film about the gangster rap group N.W.A.

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Jaimie Trueblood/Universal Pictures

“Compton” was well into production by the time scrutiny of police violence against African-Americans had begun drawing intense national attention, and Mr. Gray said his film simply recreated the realities of what life was like growing up. Still, it’s impossible not to feel a cold rush of recognition in the first scene, when a police tank — evocative of those that plied Ferguson’s streets — rams a house in a black neighborhood to smithereens. “This is what we experienced,” said Mr. Gray, who was raised in South-Central Los Angeles. “It was just a coincidence that all of that stuff gained traction. It wasn’t pointed or something we took advantage of at all.”

The same held for Mr. Nelson, who in his film resisted drawing parallels between what the Panthers initially formed to fight — police harassment in Oakland, Calif. — and what activists are pushing back against today. “We felt it would be much more powerful if audiences made those connections themselves,” he said. And indeed, he noted, they have: At dozens of Q. and A.’s after screenings, audience members invariably want to talk about the film’s connection to today’s realities. At the same time, the present-day focus on police brutality, Mr. Nelson said, has made audiences more receptive to the Panthers’ story.

“It’s made more people open to the film and able to understand the Panthers who might not have understood a few years ago,” he said.

Kathryn Cramer Brownell, an assistant professor of history at Purdue University and the author of “Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life,” said that films have long conveyed political messages to a broader culture and added resonance to percolating issues. She pointed to postwar films like “Gentleman’s Agreement,” which broached anti-Semitism, and “Pinky,” about a light-skinned black woman who passes as white. “It’s forced people to have those conversations,” she said.

Peace Officer,” which opened two weeks ago, was similarly deep into production by the time Black Lives Matters had come to the fore. It follows Dub Lawrence, a former sheriff in Utah who began questioning aggressive police tactics after his son-in-law was killed in a standoff with a SWAT team.

The film’s directors, Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson, initially wanted to focus solely on Mr. Lawrence, who sought to piece together what happened only to conclude that the official account of his son-in-law’s death was false. Mr. Lawrence went on to do the same for relatives of other victims of police shootings in Utah, which awakened the directors to the broadened use of military-style tactics by the police in that state and beyond.

“We were surprised it wasn’t being talked about in the national media,” Mr. Barber said. “And then, right when we thought we were done, the events in Ferguson unfolded. And it became talked about at a much higher level.”

They incorporated footage of police actions in Ferguson and elsewhere. Yet “Peace Officer” has a slightly different vantage point. Utah’s population is more than 90 percent white, and the victims of police violence in the film are white, too.

Mr. Barber said that both in the film as well in post-screening Q. and A.’s, he and Mr. Christopherson took pains to note that the issue had affected black communities far longer and to a greater extent.

“Police are looking at themselves as soldiers rather than officers, and citizens as enemies rather than people they’re supposed to protect,” Mr. Christopherson said. “That it’s disproportionately happening way more in those communities of color is something we need to talk about as a nation.”

Yet Mr. Barber said that events in Utah presented an opportunity to demonstrate that a host of varying communities had been affected. “We don’t want to discount the terrible role race plays in many communities,” he said, “But more people may see it as a systemic problem that somehow extends beyond race.”

Mr. Nelson, Mr. Barber and Mr. Christopherson said that audience members often ask them what can be done to address the problem. Mr. Barber and Mr. Christopherson defer to Mr. Lawrence, the former sheriff, who said there needed to be more transparency and accountability for police forces as well as more civilian oversight. Mr. Nelson sees power in the prevalence of smartphone cameras to capture incidents that might otherwise be swept under the rug.

Mr. Gray sees potential in the growing use of police body cameras. Still, he lamented that the brutality in his film remained a pressing issue today.

“I wish this was a movie not unlike most period pieces, where you say, ‘Oh, wow, that happened back in the day,’ ” he said. “When you watch civil rights leaders sprayed with water hoses and attacked by German shepherds, and you say, ‘Wow, that happened, we’re glad of the shift in the culture and a shift in the leadership and the shift in the society.’ And we unfortunately have not really evolved as much as we think we should’ve.”



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