(2020) True Life Crime (Gravitas) Frankie Faison, Steve O’Connell, Enrico Natale, Ben Marten, Angela Peel, Tom McElroy, LaRoyce Hawkins, Christopher R. Ellis, Anika Noni Rose, Antonio Polk, Dexter Zollicoffer, Kelly Owens, Kelly Owens, Armando Reyes, Eunice Woods, Daniel Houle, Linda Bright Clay, Kate Black-Spence, Alexander Strong, Nayeli Pagaza, Kristine Angela. Directed by David Midell
On November 19, 2011, 68-year-old Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. was asleep in bed and somehow managed to trigger his LifeAid medical alert necklace. When the LifeAid operator called to check on him, the call box was in the living room and Chamberlain didn’t hear it. Not getting a response, the LifeAid operator notified the White Plains, NY police department to do a wellness check. Police officers were dispatched at 5:30am that morning. By 7am, Kenneth Chamberlain would be dead.
This dramatization of those events, which after a successful festival run and brief theatrical run, debuted on HBO Max on the tenth anniversary of the event, appropriately enough. The police officers – whose names are changed here – arrive at the doorstep of Chamberlain (Faison) and begin pounding on the door. Sgt. Parks (O’Connell) is a veteran of the WPPD who doesn’t think too highly of the residents of the apartment complex, a public housing unit where drug arrests are not uncommon. Officer Jackson (Marten) is a racist with a hair trigger, while Officer Rossi (Natale) is a rookie whose last job was teaching middle school.
Chamberlain, a Marine Corps veteran, suffered from a heart condition necessitating the LifeAid (called LifeAlert here) necklace. He also had bipolar disorder. He is initially confused by the banging on his door, but eventually is contacted by the LifeAid operator and is informed what’s going on. Chamberlain insists he’s okay, that the alert was an accident and there’s no need for the officers to remain. However, he is adamant that he will not open the steel door and let the officers into his apartment. Like many African-Americans, he has a distrust of the police and this is compounded by his mental illness, which rendered him a bit paranoid. He was certain that if he let the cops into his apartment, he would end up dead.
We see the events play out in real time. Much of what happens in the movie is corroborated – the encounter was caught on the LifeAid callbox (portions of which are played at the end of the film), and some of the final moments were captured on a camera mounted on a police taser. The police claimed that Chamberlain was armed with a butcher knife and that the officers shot him in self-defense, a charge the family of Mr. Chamberlain denies. The film seems to validate this; by the time the police broke in, Chamberlain is shown to be disarmed. He is also tasered – which is not recommended for someone with a heart condition – and then shot by Jackson while he is down and essentially helpless.
So in that sense, this isn’t a he-said-she-said situation; many of the facts are not in dispute. What is absolutely mind-boggling is that despite several trials, nobody has ever been charged in Chamberlain’s death. Supporters of police officers will be quick o point out that had Chamberlain simply cooperated, the men would have been in and out of the apartment in five minutes and he would still be alive today.
However, the police should never have forced entry into the apartment. They didn’t have probable cause. Chamberlain’s reluctance to let them inside didn’t constitute probable cause. He didn’t let them in because he was not required to. It’s his own home. They would have needed a search warrant to lawfully enter his residence and they didn’t have one.
We watch the escalation unfolding with eyes wide open; Sgt. Park muses that Chamberlain might have a hooker tied up in a closet in there, or a meth lab in his kitchen. Chamberlain’s military service was the subject of snide comments by the officers, and racial slurs were used at least once on the tape.
Throughout, Chamberlain is clearly terrified and Faison wisely doesn’t overplay it, nor does he overplay the mental illness aspect. For the most part, he plays Chamberlain as a cantankerous, somewhat confused old man who was (justifiably, as it turned out) concerned with his safety should he allow the officers into his home. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance that I hope won’t get overlooked which could happen, considering that the movie didn’t get wide distribution although having HBO behind it might help.
This isn’t an easy movie to watch and I imagine that African-American viewers will have a particularly hard time not being triggered by it. One can feel the cops testosterone-fueled rage up against the outrage by the other residents and the desperation of Chamberlain’s niece (Peel) – who also lived in the building and begged the cops to let her talk to her Uncle and defuse the situation, which they steadfastly effused to do. And it was all so very avoidable, and points out one of the flaws in our system of policing – as much as this could have been averted had Chamberlain cooperated, it also might have turned out differently if at the first sign of trouble, mental health professionals trained to deal with this type of behavior had been called in. The police officers weren’t trained to deal with Chamberlain’s mental condition, and saw his refusal as a challenge to their authority. That the judicial system has agreed with that assessment is proof positive that we have a very long way to go before we can claim that our African-American brothers and sisters have equal justice before the law.
REASONS TO SEE: An extraordinary performance by Faison. Shines a light on an incident that should have gotten broader coverage. Gripping from start to finish.
REASONS TO AVOID: The use of loud sound cues is somewhat distracting.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity including racial epithets, violence, and disturbing content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although it appears to be depicted here that Chamberlain died on the scene, he actually passed away in the hospital while in surgery.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, HBO Max, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: If Beale Street Could Talk
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Tomorrow War