Plot: Oakland was a city infamous for a high level of violence, crime, and corruption, on both sides of the law. The situation was so dire that the federal government stepped in and put the Oakland Police Department on oversight, with the next step to be a full federal takeover of the police force there. That was in 2002, but the problems in the city of Oakland would continue for the next decade, after a parade of chiefs were brought in with promises of change, with no results. In 2013, Sean Whent took command and made some big promises, with a focus on a total overhaul of how the officers handled the public and each other. This was a ground up effort that included body cameras, a more open discussion with the citizens, and a high level of accountability for the police officers in Oakland. The Force follows Whent and his Oakland officers for years, to see if this troubled department could turn things around.
Entertainment Value: This documentary offers an inside look at the police force in Oakland, as Sean Whent tries to right the ship after decades of violence and corruption, all while under constant vigil from various community rights organizations. The piece shows Whent’s efforts in a positive light and real life events mirror that, as he was able to do some good things and push the department in the right direction, despite the eventual controversies that followed. The flaws within the department are evident of course, but so are the sometimes unrealistic expectations of the citizens, who push for perfection from the officers, but don’t want to conduct themselves to a similar standards. This hostile environment leads to a constant cycle of aggression and reaction from both sides, with no simple solution in sight. Some officers and citizens have good intentions and show that there is still hope, but they’re drowned out by corrupt officers and overzealous activists, some of whom openly state in The Force that they no longer plan to recognize the authority of the local police.
The Force winds up as a fly on the wall approach documentary, as we see all kinds of things happen, but there is no voice or involvement from behind the camera. Some documentaries push to investigate or reveal a deeper layer of the subject, but here the movie is a ride that takes through the experiences, though with an incredible level of access involved. This allows for a balanced look at the situation and the participants speak for themselves, which I appreciated, but doesn’t offer the polished, more traditional style narrative of some documentaries. This is also a rather dark story of course, with few positive elements and those are overwhelmed by aggressive, not as well meaning people on both sides of the law. The situation is one without an easy, simple fix and you can see that has driven some people to extremes on both sides, which only pours fuel on the fire. In the end, The Force offers an inside look at a volatile, relevant issue that doesn’t seem to have an answer on the horizon, but is still a topic that needs to remain in discussions.