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Tribeca Review: ‘Copwatch’

Variety logo Variety 4/23/2017 Nick Schager
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The topic of police brutality has taken on fresh urgency in recent years, due to a number of high-profile killings of young African-American men by law enforcement officers. Camilla Hall’s documentary “Copwatch” takes a look at the community response to those incidents through the filter of a group of men who’ve formed an organization dedicated to monitoring police. Alas, no matter the story’s timelessness, the film offers few insights and does little to justify the admiration it confers upon its watchdogs, who remain largely unexamined. A Tribeca Film Festival debut notwithstanding, this cursory effort seems unlikely to find future theatrical footing.

Videotaping the police in order to publicize (and, hopefully, prevent) their misconduct has been a decades-long vocation for Oakland native Jacob Crawford, who after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., travels there and quickly befriends David Whitt, an impromptu activist in the area. They soon decide to establish an official organization known as “WeCopwatch,” replete with T-shirts and other branded paraphernalia, which mainly involves members legally filming cops carrying out their official duties in public.

Before long, they’re joined by two high-profile recruits: Ramsey Orta, who shot the video of New York City’s Eric Garner being choked to death by NYPD officers; and Kevin Moore, who captured Baltimore resident Freddie Gray being hauled into the police van where his life came to an abrupt, suspicious end. Together, they’re presented by Hall as noble crusaders who’ve taken it upon themselves to watch the watchmen for the benefit of society. However, in footage of them trying to videotape police — actions met with varying degrees of hostility from cops — these men come across as borderline antagonistic themselves, determined not just to keep tabs on unruly police, but also to not-so-subtly let them know that they’re now presumed guilty of abuse (if not worse) until proven otherwise.

“Copwatch” proceeds from the initial assumption that, in general, police are always apt to behave improperly unless they’re scrutinized by video cameras. Certainly, the cultural conversation about greater law enforcement oversight is crucial, but Hall’s approach to it is too-obviously confrontational. Moreover, the notion that the filmmaker isn’t playing straight with her hot-button material is further exacerbated by her refusal to honestly depict the ongoing plight of Orta, who in the aftermath of his celebrity over the Garner video, is repeatedly arrested for various crimes, and ultimately sent to prison courtesy of a plea deal on a heroin-selling charge.

When not casting Orta as the victim of a police payback set-up (sans supporting evidence), Hall’s film uses his plight to make an outraged ironic point — namely, that while those responsible for Garner’s death were exonerated, the man who brought this offense to light wound up in prison. Yet by conspicuously refusing to list the many crimes Orta was charged with (which also included domestic abuse), “Copwatch,” unlike Orta and Moore’s newsworthy clips, shows little interest in training a clear, unfiltered eye on its subjects; rather, it skirts and omits any details that might interfere with its lionization of these men and their cause.

While its handheld cinematography is ho-hum and its use of melodramatic music is graceless, “Copwatch” is finally undone by an inability to show that the work of WeCopwatch has reaped any rewards. Though much is made about the group’s passion for its work, and considerable time is spent striving to make the four men sympathetic through snippets of backstory about their difficult personal circumstances, the film fails to show that their endeavors have resulted in meaningful revelations or change. As such, it too often resembles the portrait of a few amateur activists engaged in a pastime of debatable demonstrable value.

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