Morgan Freeman has had an enviable career; so much that his Wikipedia highlights don’t even mention his Oscar-nominated turn in 1987’s Street Smart. That’s an embarrassment of riches for any actor, and provides an opportunity for the celebrated star to draw attention to worthy causes. In this case, he’s chosen to shine a light on a real-life news story from ten years ago, one that’s very much in tune with the on-going cinematic interest in raising awareness of Black Lives Matter.
Kenneth Chamberlain Sr (Frankie Faison from The Wire) wakes up in the early hours of the morning to find alarms sounding in his apartment; a police unit is dispatched to check on his health, and make sure that he’s not in any difficulty. Chamberlain has been diagnosed with a bi-polar condition, and has some difficulty dealing with a sudden, unexpected crisis on his doorstep; he’s an ex-marine, and fiercely guards his property, so when the cops arrive, mob-handed, a stand-off develops with Chamberlain refusing to give the authorities access to his tiny flat. As the intensity rises, prejudicial attitudes amongst Chamberlain’s ‘helpers’ develop, and the title makes sure we’re always aware how this tragic story is going to end.
Freeman made his debut in Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker back in 1963, and writer/director David Midell manages to conjure up the same feel for gritty realism that informed Lumet’s Serpico; there are good and bad cops, and a sense of moral corruption that makes Chamberlain’s reticence understandable. Faison has tonnes to do here, and makes the gear-shifts of Chamberlain’s last hour understandable and empathetic. The film takes almost as long to unfold as the actual events did, a rare trick, but one that makes it truly agonising to watch. The shocking coda, using photographs and recordings of the distress calls and police audio from the incident, is worth sticking around for; if, at times, it seems unbelievable that the police could be so racist, it’s worth noting that the language used in the film matches the language on record. This important film raises issues of police brutality, but also questions how we deal with mental health issues in the community, and the joined-up thinking that’s required is clearly missing in this particular instance.
The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain is a bleak, agonising and powerful film, and one hopes that the public will take the chance to educate themselves on how easily a simple dispute can escalate to lethal consequences. For veterans Faison and Freeman, it’s a chance to use their clout to say something significant with a resonance byond cinema; The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain is recommended viewing for those who want to understand why the slogan Black Lives Matter was required in the first place.