To those unable to process the exponential proliferation of police shootings ending unarmed black men's lives in recent years, each new case begins to blur into one unending nightmare. But each slaying is unique. Even if they do fit into a larger narrative, treating the trend like a faceless monolith of tragedy diminishes the lives that have been extinguished. Erik Ljung's documentary "The Blood is at the Doorstep" is a sharp exercise that has it both ways. Ljung connects dots and draws parallels between multiple cases, but hones in on the story of Dontre Hamilton, who was killed by police in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 2014.
On April 30, 2014, Starbucks employees called the police on Dontre for sleeping in a nearby park. A pair of officers assessed the situation and deemed Dontre not to be a threat to anyone, telling the Starbucks not to call them again. But a beat cop named Chris Manney took it upon himself to check things out, even after the dispatcher told him there was no need. Manney got into an altercation with Dontre and shot him 14 times. The police department found out that Dontre suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and quickly reframed the narrative to be about mental health instead of poor training of cops.
The documentary chronicles the ensuing investigation and the public outcry surrounding the shooting, but that's not its principal concern. Spoiler alert: no criminal charges were ever brought against Manney, so it's not like this could be believably framed as a procedural or a mystery. Instead, "The Blood Is At The Doorstep" focuses on Dontre's family, primarily his older brother Nate and his mother Maria, following them for three years after his death. Rather than merely documenting grief for the purposes of emotional pornography, the film becomes an illuminating portrait of contrasts—the subtle juxtaposition of the Hamilton family's struggle for closure against the outside entities that lack their depth or empathy.
You see Dontre's father blaming himself for losing his son, citing his split from Dontre's mother, before seeing Police Chief Edward Flynn blame national social unrest for racializing the case. Nate wrestles with knowing the robbery charge the police initially attribute to Dontre was actually his own crime. Meanwhile, Manney seems unable to acknowledge the countless infractions on his performance record that precede this shooting. Add to that a particularly incendiary protester who begins to hijack the Hamilton family's movement and it seems like the people most affected by Dontre's death are the only ones capable of the introspection necessary to adequately see the complexity of the situation.
Much of the film's power comes from that same place, that ability to objectively explore the bigger picture without losing sight of the details. It's not like the Hamiltons are cheek-turning pacifists, remaining docile in the face of injustice. One of the more painful elements of this documentary is watching their growing frustration and weariness erode their composure over time. But they never get caught up in hysteria.
In that same vein, the film gives ample room for Flynn and even Manney to defend their position. Flynn's tired-guy-in-a-tough-spot shtick makes him feel more like a William Hurt performance than an actual person. Also, Manney doesn't do himself any favors by being unable to pronounce the word "baton" or using his Puerto Rican nanny as empirical proof he's not a bigot. But in showing their perspectives, Ljung does a great job of preemptively shutting up the All Lives Matter crowd, even rehashing the 2004 police shooting of Michael Bell, the white son of a veteran.
It's difficult to imagine the viewer who could sit through this nuanced and balanced look at law enforcement's inability to properly police itself and still call Black Lives Matter a terrorist group. But then again the same people telling protesters to march quietly and be less disruptive were still pissed at Colin Kaepernick for sitting silently on the sidelines. The most heartbreaking thing about "The Blood is at the Doorstep" is how the Hamilton family did everything right in the wake of losing Dontre and still couldn't find catharsis, while Chris Manney did everything wrong and still gets a pension.
"The Blood is at the Doorstep," directed by Erik Ljung, screens at the MICA Brown Center on May 5 at 1:45 p.m. and on May 6 at 4:45 p.m.