Winner of Best Documentary Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival, Do Not Resist is a riveting and frightening directorial debut from Detropia cinematographer Craig Atkinson and is screening in competition at the 2016 Indy Film Fest this week at the Indianapolis Museum of Art's Toby Theatre.
If there's a documentary that feels both incredibly relevant and likely to be remembered come awards season playing this year's Indy Film Fest, it's likely this 73-minute portrayal of increasing militarization of American police departments from the hardcore streets of America's biggest cities to rural towns where Andy Griffith used to be what we all pictured when we pictured smalltown American justice.
Atkinson, whose father was a police officer for 29 years in a city bordering Detroit and who joined SWAT when his city finally developed a team, first thought of the idea of Do Not Resist after being captivated by news accounts of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and, perhaps more to the point, becoming aware of a different approach to policing for which he had no point of reference.
What changed? Why did it change? What does it all mean? Where are we going?
These are the questions that serve as the foundation for Do Not Resist, an occasionally out of focus film that benefits from that lack of focus because, quite frankly, there's so many issues that need to be discussed here. From a ride-along with a South Carolina SWAT team and inside a police training seminar that teaches the importance of "righteous violence" to the floor of a congressional hearing on the proliferation of military equipment in small-town police departments, Do Not Resist takes us inside a disturbing trend with American policing that seems to validate the whole "us vs. them" fears of growing segments of the American population with the most noteworthy and visible being the Black community and the growing unrest in the nation over institutionalized racism and a racially biased justice system that unfairly targets African-American men and other minorities.
Atkinson's camera brings to life technologies that seem almost unfathomable within the context of American policing, perhaps most disturbing being that of face-recognition technology that allows for easy identification of those with outstanding warrants en masse an uncomfortable reality for a growing number of cities where privacy rights are being violated unapologetically and, in fact, rather tauntingly.
At a mere 73 minutes in running time, Do Not Resist moves quickly, maybe too quickly, as it touches on such areas as the impact of the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson to the fact that nearly all of this advanced technology was designed solely for the purpose of confronting domestic terrorism yet far too often is being used solely for such tasks as serving warrants on suspected drug dealers and other far less critical cases.
Do Not Resist certainly is not the first media portrayal of the increased militarization of America's police departments, but it's certainly one of the most powerfully presented and Atkinson's ability to present the material visually in a way that is informative and emotionally involving drives home the fact in a new and profound way.
For the vast majority of American history, the U.S. government has refused to allow the military to be activated against American citizens. Do Not Resist makes it abundantly clear that such is not the case anymore and Atkinson provides both the foundation for and examples of how this practice is coming to life in ways that are unjust, ineffective and dramatically altering the American justice landscape.
“What happened in Ferguson—the actual practice of how the demonstrations were handled—I think we were all embarrassed, quite frankly, in law enforcement,” said Garry McCarthy, then the chief of Chicago's Police Department to President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Police in regard to the heavy-handed response by police that only fueled the unrest in Ferguson. “In my book, if you fire tear gas, you’ve got a riot right now. You don’t have a demonstration,” he said. In itself a disturbing statement, it's hard not to parallel it with revelations of Chicago's use of Homan Square, an alleged "Black SIte" where the typical rules of American justice are alleged to be irrelevant.
If there's a conclusion, and indeed Atkinson's film is more observational than solution-oriented, it's that the increased militarization of police departments and the use of SWAT utilizing such technology even for the task of serving search warrants is creating police departments where "protect and serve" is being replaced by a growing tendency toward divide and conquer.
Do Not Resist is a "smash and grab" kind of film, it smashes its way into your psyche' and grabs your attention and simply refuses to let go. Without histrionics and surprisingly without much in the way of bias, Atkinson's Do Not Resist is easily one of the 2016 Indy Film Fest's cinematic highlights that will leave you thinking and feeling long after the closing credits.
Do Not Resist is screening at Indy Film Fest on July 15th at 12:45pm at the Toby and on July July 23rd at 1:15pm at the Toby, as well. For ticket information, visit the Indy Film Fest website.
Critic's Note: Do Not Resist picked up the prize for Best Documentary Feature at the 2016 Indy Film Fest.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic