‘The Blood Is at the Doorstep’: Film Review | SXSW 2017

Jennifer Johnson/Courtesy of Young Productions and Baby Plane
An urgent report from the frontlines of an American crisis.

Filmed over a three-year period, Erik Ljung’s documentary chronicles the fatal police shooting of Dontre Hamilton and the tireless efforts of his family as they seek answers.

The policeman who killed Milwaukee resident Dontre Hamilton in April 2014, in a public park in the middle of the day, shot him 14 times. He wasn’t the first cop to approach Hamilton as he dozed in the downtown park — others had been there and seen that he was doing nothing wrong. Why an employee at a nearby Starbucks saw the need to call the police about him, and not once but twice, is one of the sorriest aspects in the horrific chain of events that robbed Hamilton’s family of their son and brother. The 31-year-old black man was schizophrenic and, except for the baton that he reportedly grabbed from the officer, unarmed. 

The Blood Is at the Doorstep, Erik Ljung’s first feature documentary, traces a timeline of Hamilton’s death and its aftermath, beginning with a brief reenactment and the recording of Officer Christopher Manney’s post-shooting call for medical assistance, in all its frantic confusion. But while the details of the case are essential to Ljung’s stirring film, his chief concern is the way the shooting galvanized Milwaukee, and how it turned Hamilton’s brother and mother into leaders in the ongoing struggle for justice and enlightened policy. 

Ljung’s clear-eyed film finds hope within terrible circumstances, and strength within heartbreak. Given the continued unfortunate timeliness of the subject, the doc would certainly find an audience in a wider platform beyond the fest circuit. 

At the center of the film are Hamilton’s older brother Nate, aka Junior, and their mother, Maria Hamilton, both of whom have stepped into the unasked-for spotlight as activists. Nate is a genial roofer who co-founded the Coalition for Justice; Maria, after being so overwhelmed by grief that she could barely function, reached out to other mothers who lost their sons in police shootings, founding Mothers for Justice United. The filmmakers are there as she and the other women gather in her front room over tea and pastries, sharing their sorrow and bolstering each other’s strength. 

The doc clicks off the passing months after the killing, making painfully clear that on top of their loss, the family faced ongoing delays by the DA as to whether Manney would be charged. But the indignities started with another troubling delay: Hamilton’s family wasn’t notified of his death for at least nine hours. Speaking with Ljung, Hamilton’s eldest brother, Dameion Perkins, his outrage simmering beneath the composed surface, quotes the reason the cops gave for not contacting them sooner: “We thought you would’ve seen it on TV.” 

Ljung speaks too with the Milwaukee Police Department’s chief, Ed Flynn, a complex figure who enters the story in defensive mode, painting a damning picture of Hamilton in the case’s initial press conference. Mayor Tom Barrett helps to set the record straight, emphasizing that Dontre Hamilton was neither homeless nor an armed robber. The municipal politics grow heated, and the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, three months after Hamilton’s, intensifies the protests in Milwaukee. Although Flynn refuses to see the racial component of the local case — he insists it’s strictly a mental-health issue — his reactions begin to look downright reasonable compared with the police union, which closes ranks against him in support of Manney. 

Handling DP duties, Ljung doesn’t shy away from the complications and messiness as various factions confront one another. He’s in the fray for raucous public hearings and for intra-group friction among the activists (all of it sharply edited by Michael T. Vollmann). “We were trying to do things a little softer,” Nate Hamilton says when some of his colleagues take a more confrontational tack. 

But the filmmaker also captures more personal moments to powerful effect. Nate recalls his brother’s quirks (and fashion choices) with a beaming smile; Maria takes a mind-clearing drive to the quiet suburban neighborhood in Indiana where she and her ex-husband, Nate Sr. (who offers his own touching testimony) raised their sons. They were the first black family in the area. 

Opening with a James Baldwin quote and ending with riots in Milwaukee over another police-involved shooting, Ljung’s film illuminates an American crisis — the emotional fallout as well as the vigilance and hard work required to address the use of lethal force by police, their accountability, and the need for better training in dealing with mentally ill people. In Nate Jr. and Maria Hamilton, he shows that vigilance in action, heartbroken but unwavering.

Production companies: Macho Films, September Club, Young Productions, Baby Plane
Distributor-director-producer-director of photography: Erik Ljung
Executive producer: Barry Poltermann
Cinematography: Daniel Thomas Peters, Joel Van Haren, Quinn Hester
Editor: Michael T. Vollmann
Venue: South by Southwest (Documentary Feature Competition)

96 minutes