The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain


A bipolar veteran takes stock of his situation in the last hour of his life.

(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

Fences


Denzel Washington and Viola Davis await that call from the Academy.

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis await that call from the Academy.

(2016) Drama (Paramount) Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo, Stephen Henderson, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney, Christopher Mele, Leslie Boone, Jason Silvis, Toussaint Raphael Abessolo, Benjamin Donlow, John W. Iwononkiw, Cecily Lewis, Tra’Waan Coles, Theresa Cook, Cara Clark, Connie Kincer, Teri Middleton, Kelly L. Moran. Directed by Denzel Washington

 

“Some folks build fences to keep people out,” muses a character in this adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Other folks build fences to keep people in.” There’s truth to that but Fences actually posits a third option; some people build fences to barricade themselves against a life that has done nothing but disappoint them.

Troy Maxson (Washington) was once upon a time a great baseball player. Unfortunately for him, he was a great baseball player during a time when only white men were allowed to play in the major league. By the time Jackie Robinson opened that door, Troy was already forty years old and that ship had sailed. Now in his fifties, he lives in Pittsburgh working for the sanitation department, riding on the back of a garbage truck with his best friend Bono (Henderson). The truck drivers are all white and Troy is trying to become a sort of Jackie Robinson of garbage truck drivers, although truth be told he never thought much of ol’ Jackie.

He does have a home of his own, a castle with a tiny yard around which he’s fixing to build a fence. His wife Rose (Davis) is a heroic partner; she manages to smooth her husband’s rough edges and endures his petty rage with the patience of a saint. Much of his rage is directed at their son Cory (Adepo) who is a fine athlete in his own right, attracting attention of college football coaches for his prowess on the gridiron.

This does not sit well at all with Troy, no sir. He creates obstacles for his son to keep him from finding that success in sports that he himself was denied. Rose tries to keep the peace between the two men but the tensions are escalating. Troy’s musician son Lyons (Hornsby) from a different mother – back before Rose and Troy were a thing – also has Troy’s scorn, but Lyons has managed to get away. It seems that Troy’s tender side is reserved only for his wife, Bono and Troy’s younger brother Gabriel (Williamson) who fought in the war and ended up with brain damage.

Troy can be a charming storyteller but cracks are beginning to appear in the facade. We discover things about Troy that are less than savory, things even Troy won’t talk about and Troy often talks about his days as a young criminal going down the wrong path until Rose straightened him out. Rose endures everything, all the stories, all the tantrums, all the frustration but there comes a time when Troy does something that Rose cannot endure and all of a sudden those fences seem much taller and insurmountable than they ever have before.

The late playwright August Wilson won a Pulitzer for this play, the sixth in his ten-play Pittsburgh cycle. Wilson had ambitions of taking the play to Hollywood and in fact wrote a screenplay based on his own work but unfortunately passed away before it made it to the big screen. Once Washington got the rights to film this, he utilized the script (with a touch-up from producer Tony Kushner) which stays fairly faithful to Wilson’s original work.

That’s a double-edged sword. Some of the monologues don’t sound like real people speaking and give the movie a kind of stage-like feel. The claustrophobic feel of the yard and the house are functions of the pressing frustrations of Troy’s life but they also contribute to that feeling of watching a stage play rather than a movie. Really though that’s the film’s only flaw.

The movie is well-acted from top to bottom with Oscar-level performances by Washington and Davis, both of whom are almost shoo-ins to get nominations when they are announced tomorrow morning (as of this writing). Washington’s Troy is cocky, angry, sexy, engaging and equal parts bully and provider. He has given up some of his less savory ways but not all of them and he ends up threatening everything he built for himself because of it.

As good as Washington is, Davis is even better. Her performance has been called a supporting role and I suppose in some ways it is, but if we’re going to be honest Rose is one third of the focus here and in that sense she is part of an ensemble. There’s a confrontation between Rose and Troy, some of which is seen in the trailer, that is as riveting a scene as you’ll see this year or any other. Her frustrations of enduring her husband’s endless posturing, his anger and his refusal to take any accountability for his own shortcomings boils over and her anger is so palpable she is literally shaking as tears stream down her face.

It should be mentioned that Williamson’s performance here is very reminiscent of his work in Forrest Gump and may be even better. Gabriel is a damaged soul but child-like. Troy is his protector and Gabriel looks up to him with faith that is touching if misplaced. Williamson should get at least some consideration for a Supporting Actor Oscar although that might not happen in a very strong field in that category this year.

This is easily one of the best-acted films of the year. The source material is extremely powerful, examining family dynamics, rivalry between father and son and the frustrations of a life that didn’t go the way you wanted it to go. The setting brings racial inequality into the story but it is more of a background issue; this is about a family that is relatable to any who had a stern taskmaster for a father, or a mother who held things together. Those kinds of archetypes are very common in the African American community but they are also universal. My own father had some of Troy’s characteristics; a frustration that the life he envisioned for himself didn’t happen and there was a rivalry between us that at times made me believe that he would rather see me fail so that his own failures were somehow less painful. The thing that separated my father from Troy Maxson however was that he very clearly loved his children and would do anything for them, including work himself to death for them, and he was also able to express that love although perhaps not in ways that would be found acceptable today. He did the best he could in the times and culture he lived in and sometimes that’s all we are really able to get. The fences that keep the demons out are also the fences that can keep families together…or tear them apart. This is one of the year’s best.

REASONS TO GO: The performances by Washington and Davis are electrifying. A middle class African-American family of the 1950s is nicely captured. Wilson justly won the Pulitzer Prize for this; it is a play/film that truly makes you think.
REASONS TO STAY: The film feels a bit stage-y.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some foul language, some domestic violence, a little bit of suggestive sexuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The five adult actors from the 2010 revival of the August Wilson play reprise their roles here; it went on to win the 2010 Tony Award for Best Revival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Bronx Tale
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Strad Style