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The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain first premiered at the Austin Film Festival in October 2019; a year and a half later, it is heading to Berlin’s European Film Market carrying the weight of 2020’s racial reckoning.
The 80-minute indie, written and directed by David Midell, follows the final moments of Chamberlain’s life. He was a 68-year-old Black veteran killed by White Plains, New York police in 2011 after accidentally setting off his medical alert, which escalated to a standoff and officers breaking down Chamberlain’s apartment door. He was shot twice in the chest, and no charges were brought against the police in a 2012 jury trial (though a 2020 appeal did rule that a federal judge was wrong to dismiss parts of a lawsuit against the police for excessive use of force). Do the Right Thing‘s Frankie Faison plays Chamberlain in the film, which was made with support from the deceased’s family.
Just weeks after last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, Morgan Freeman and his Revelations Entertainment producing partner Lori McCreary saw the film for the first time, and quickly signed on as executive producers. As they bring the film to Berlin, Freeman and McCreary spoke to THR about the need for police reform and the sad relevance of Chamberlain’s death 10 years later.
Why was this a project you wanted to sign onto?
Morgan Freeman: The story of Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain is about a man who accidentally touched off his Life Alert system, you just press that button and 911 is alerted. And 911 will send someone, generally they send the police — wrong, but they do. The police go and answer the call, and meanwhile Kenneth is telling the 911 people, “I’m okay, that was a mistake, I don’t need any help, I’m okay.” They try to tell the police that but the police insist on gaining entry to his apartment. They’re banging on the doors saying “Open the door,” and he’s telling them “Leave me alone, I’m fine, I don’t need anything, that was a mistake.” And this goes on for hours, with the police insisting on gaining access to his apartment, so much so that they eventually break down the door and wind up killing Chamberlain.
Now, that was never any danger to the police, not even that they could imagine. This was an old man stumbling around in the dark of his apartment trying to get people to leave him alone. All of the news coverage this past year, about George Floyd and Black Lives Matter and all of the other stuff that’s been going on, this movie I think sort of narrows it all down to what is necessary here, and to my way of thinking what was necessary here is police reform. We have to get another way of doing policing in the community. Policing is for help, it’s not law enforcement, and I think this movie points that out.
Lori McCreary: I think Morgan and I feel that these stories need to be not only seen, but also, hopefully with our voice, amplified. This is, as Morgan said, a very clear example of [where] the police were just not properly trained or equipped to deal with specific situations like Kenneth; when he called 911 and the police were sent. We hope that this kind of a film will be a good example for people to understand what it means when we say there needs to be changes, and it’s really about properly equipping our police departments in the communities with the proper ability to respond with the right type of people. Because I guess we sent people with guns to this emergency and he was someone who needed medical attention.
This first premiered in 2019. How do the events of the past year affect what this film is in 2021?
Freeman: We think it’s going to be absolutely necessary to organize some sort of police reform. They’ll print that I said defund the police but that’s not at all what I’m talking about, I’m talking about reform. On the police cars all over the country it says, “to serve and protect,” [they have] got to reinforce that. Law enforcement is not to serve and protect, policing is to serve and protect.
McCreary: We saw this film July last year and it was just, I don’t know, weeks or so after the killing of George Floyd. We were even, and I think the country, was still too raw at that time to throw another example like this into the media. We’re all still wrapping our heads around some of the things that have happened even since then. So we’re very cognizant of wanting to put this out at a time where it’s not going to re-traumatize people but hopefully inform people.
Kenneth’s death didn’t get the same national attention or reaction as George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Jacob Blake — do you hope this changes that a little bit?
Freeman: I hope something comes of it.
McCreary: It will be 10 years this coming fall since his murder and I think that it’s more about having his unfortunate death have the ability to help with reform. The family isn’t as concerned as making sure that a spotlight is shone on it as they are that a spotlight is shone on it for the effect of people understanding why we need to have reform.
How much of a role did the real-life family play in the production?
McCreary: They’ve been actively involved from the very inception. Kenneth Chamberlain Jr. is out speaking on behalf of the film and we all believe that his voice is important and necessary in our fight for social justice as we move along.
What is the power of this movie basically recreating the situation in real time?
Freeman: It’s filmed in real time. The length of the film is just about the length of the incident — the incident of course went on for hours but because it’s a documentary — in other words, everything about it is true because Kenneth had his phone on all the time, so it was recording.
McCreary: It’s kind of like peeling back the curtain on this, because you can tell the story, you can say that a gentleman who was elderly hit his Life Alert early in the morning and within three hours, he was dead by the police, [but] it doesn’t really tell you the intricacies of the issue. It wasn’t only the police that are the issue, it’s our system because there are a lot of things that happened along the way that led to the police breaking down the door. We’re so used to hearing things on the news and sound bites, we’re not able all the time to really get to the intricacies of what actually happened. I think we need to look at all of our systems and see where they break down, and in places like this, this is a good example of something that I don’t think anyone would say, “Oh yeah, that was the outcome that should have happened” or was meant to happen. I think we all could say, “If we had changed these five things, he’d still be here.”
Freeman: It’s detail. You get news coverage of it, they’re gonna tell you what they have time to tell you.
Can you talk a little about Frankie Faison’s performance as Kenneth?
Freeman: He was awesome, awesome. There comes a time in every actor’s life when he channels a part — he does not act it. And that was Frankie.
McCreary: Frankie is one of those faces that I think we all recognize. We’ve seen him for years and years and years and years in so many different films and TV series. There’s something very familiar to all of us when we see him so we feel like we know him a little bit but for him, as Morgan said, to really embody Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., it sucked you in and I can’t think of anyone who could have done it better.
Once again the police officers were cleared in this case — what conversations do you hope this film continues or restarts about police and Black Americans?
Freeman: We need a dialogue so we hope that this becomes part of the catalyst for a dialogue. Once a dialogue starts, people begin to understand where we are and why we are and how we can change where we are and how we are. We can all look forward to a better tomorrow in terms of our law enforcement and policing and the difference there.
McCreary: Kenneth Chamberlain Jr. is still fighting for justice for his father. In June last year, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the original decision, which allowed the police officers to walk away with no accountability. So it just opens the possibility that they’ll be more conversations about it, and we hope that they can at least have those.
Freeman: What the police can do now is kill you outright and no accountability, none. That’s because they have guns.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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