Review: Coolly argued but driven by fury, ‘Power’ examines the history of American policing

Police officers walk down a street in grainy period video footage.
A scene from the documentary “Power.”

The phrase “to protect and to serve,” forged by the Los Angeles Police Department and enshrined in cop shows, did a lot of work over the years massaging a nationwide image of police as a community’s civic knights. One could imagine a more grimly appropriate flip-side motto, however, after absorbing “Strong Island” director Yance Ford’s new documentary, “Power,” a stinging analysis of the forces that created American police authority as we know it: “to control and to suppress.”

On a micro level, who gets protected and who gets controlled shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone with a passing grasp of our inequalities and access to footage of violent police interactions. What lingers, disturbingly, from the Academy Award-nominated filmmaker’s deep dive into how we got to the point of conspicuous militarization, stop-and-frisk, beatings of protesters and George Floyd’s murder, is the macro of it: how much the (dys)functioning of police departments grew out of a booming country’s worst instincts toward those who weren’t property-owning white people.

Minneapolis police Inspector Charlie Adams — one of Ford’s many interviewees — points to the throughline connecting the antebellum South’s slave patrols to today’s cops stopping Black people and requesting IDs. (Adams is himself Black.) Other talking heads, including professor Nikhil Pal Singh and sociologist Julian Go, explain policing’s other sources: frontier militias who cleared lands of Indigenous people so whites could settle. As cities grew and the maw of industry required workers, the municipal forces that monitored immigrants broke strikes. Policing grew out of these dominant capitalist dynamics, rather than some idealized vision of self-governance or a notion of security for all.


That’s just the background, however, to the scope of Ford’s inquiry, which lays bare policing’s colonialist origins, the legitimization of police violence and how even a moment of honest political clarity about civil unrest and Black resistance could be exploited to bolster authority. While the blockbuster Kerner Commission Report in 1968 may have correctly diagnosed poverty, failed policies and racism as significant problems, the only takeaway the government acted on was adding more police. And after 9/11, the solution was to add even more police, with more war-style weapons.

As a follow-up to his Oscar-nominated “Strong Island,” the documentarian turns to the history of American policing, why it was established and how it functions.

May 9, 2024

“Power’s” archival element is tightly handled. One of Ford’s most effective montages splices together every president from Nixon to Biden defending law enforcement, an over 50-year span from “law and order” to “fund the police.” There also are eye-opening clips from old newsreels showing police aggression and an excerpt from a badge-glorifying pre-Code melodrama called “The Beast of the City.” A true cop-aganda curio from the vault is a 1970 doc called “The Police Film” hosted by Ben Gazzara, the actor’s stern baritone selling you on the necessity of maintaining social order while visuals show ants overtaking a threat to the colony.

The interviewees, meanwhile, are a formidable assemblage, offering insight upon insight into American policing and its scary buildup in the face of repeated calls for meaningful, overdue reform. Mixed in with the scholars is the compelling testimony of a Queens man of Indian heritage who grew up during stop-and-frisk. He speaks movingly of the incremental sapping of self-worth that comes with being constantly targeted to demonstrate force.

As “Power” flows, Ford gets close to the kind of impact Ava DuVernay’s “13th” had as a bracing social history lesson on an out-of-control ill. In fact, the documentary’s many fascinating strands, falling under headings like “Social Control,” “Counter Insurgency” and “Violence Work” (with Ford himself providing occasional voice-over commentary or an off-camera prompt), almost beg for more intensive analysis. “Power” could just as easily have benefited from the docuseries treatment, but even at less than 90 minutes, it lands plenty of hard truths and harder questions.


Rating: R, for language and some violent content

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Monica, West Los Angeles; on Netflix May 17