Film Review: Copwatch

This flawed documentary about Copwatch volunteers from three American community-police flashpoints—New York, St. Louis and Baltimore—is big on vivid portraiture but less attuned to the issues at hand.
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There are some groups nobody wants to join. But fate doesn’t ask permission. The trio of men profiled in Camilla Hall’s documentary about the lives of those who watch the watchers don’t seem happy to have become famous the way they did. But each of them shows a certain relief at having a cause that provides an alternative to the chaos that surrounds them. Hall’s subjects became famous due to their proximity to three linked tragedies: Ramsey Orta filmed the arrest and subsequent choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York; Kevin Moore filmed Freddie Gray being slung into the Baltimore police van where he would be mortally wounded; and David Whitt filmed around Ferguson, Missouri after Michael Brown’s shooting and watched over the makeshift memorial where it happened.

Acting as a guide of sorts to Hall’s companionable but only lightly probing narrative is Jacob Crawford. An activist from Oakland, Calif., Crawford started videotaping police interactions with the public before YouTube. Just a few seconds of one of his old clips shows that police way back when weren’t any happier then about being filmed than they are in today’s everyone’s-a-filmmaker environment. (The glitchy, frame-heavy segments will also give some viewers post-traumatic flashback from the days of Flash Media Player.) A purposeful and earnest personality who gives off the impression of having been at this kind of work since before the other players here were even born, Crawford acts as coach and mentor to this younger crop of copwatchers whose videos both document and inspired the anti-police violence protests of the last few years.

Copwatch acts partially as a recruitment video for Crawford’s loose network of activists. Hall shows Crawford, Whitt and Moore training people in the basics of what they’re allowed to do under the law and how to de-escalate the situation when the observed police become aggressive. The movie includes several instances of the latter, most vividly one where Whitt pulls over to shoot a traffic stop, only to have two St. Louis officers first block his camera and then aggressively push him back so far that he’s unable to see what the other police are doing. This material, when combined with the contextualizing footage of post-shooting protests, briefly provides the movie with a charge of urgency.

But too often, Hall appears to be operating under the assumption that her players, and not their work or the reasons that they do it, are the most important thing here. The tall, dreadlocked Moore and Whitt are eye-catching personalities, to be sure, just the kind of nascent community leaders around whom successful social-justice movements are frequently built. Moore’s usually sunny and calm demeanor, particularly impressive when facing down hostile police, is interrupted by flashes of revealingly thoughtful self-doubt (“How do you raise a kid to be a success when you’re not successful?”) while Whitt’s dedication to preserving Brown’s memorial is a moving testament to the need for permanence in the 24-hour news-cycle churn.

For every moment spent on their work, however, it feels like just as much is spent with the more taciturn Orta and the stack of drug charges he was hit with soon after embarrassing the police with his tragic Garner video. A few dark intimations are made about Orta being targeted by the police, but the movie barely even tries to make the case for his being framed. Instead, Hall concocts long stretches of the movie out of simply following Crawford, et al. from one city to the next as they bond over shared experiences and make the odd speech at a protest.

Because of that focus on character, Copwatch ends up sharing some DNA with Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ similarly character-heavy and issue-light activist documentary Whose Streets? (Whitt appeared in that movie as well.) What could have been a blueprint for placing democratic checks on authoritarian police practices becomes a feel-good movie about people fighting the good fight. Both are valid approaches, but it’s hard not to feel that the former would be more appropriate, given the dark circumstances that thrust these men into the limelight.

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