A protester kneels before a barricade of police officers in riot gear.

Yance Ford on Power, Curiosity, and Suspicion

Documentary examines the growth of the police state in the USA

17 mins read

“This film requires curiosity, or at least suspicion,” director Yance Ford says in voiceover during the opening frames of Power. “I leave that choice up to you.”

Ford, speaking with POV during Hot Docs where Power had its Canadian premiere, explains that this introduction signals his transparency. However, Ford also conveys that the voiceover puts audiences in a position of active viewing.

“I’m saying that I understand that you might be curious about this subject or that you might be suspicious of my intentions in making a film about the history of police,” Ford notes. “I leave the choice of the lens through which you’re going to view this film up to you.”

Director Yance Ford | Netflix

Power offers a provocative thematic follow-up to Ford’s Oscar-nominated documentary Strong Island as it interrogates the systemic imbalances that facilitate the rise of the police state. The film chronicles the history of violence with which policing in the USA grew as a method for controlling Black lives when slavery was legal, and continues to suppress Black Americans, People of Colour, Indigenous persons, and members of other minority groups.

Audiences who’ve seen Strong Island might tend towards suspicion, having witnessed how boldly Ford’s previous film interrogates the legal system that let his brother’s killer go free. At the same time, one can’t help but put suspicion aside. Ford’s work with Strong Island tells one that he’ll give anyone a fair shot, even though the questions won’t be easy. Whether audiences are familiar with Ford’s films or not, the intro invites one to immediately reflect upon the preconceptions that one brings to the essay film.

Different Lenses for the “Issue” of Policing

Although Ford adds that curiosity and suspicion inevitably offer different lenses, Power anticipates either way of thinking. “Curiosity is agnostic. It’s politically agnostic,” he says.  “Curiosity, for me, is a desire to learn something that you don’t know, to access information that you may not have thought about through a particular point of view. It may leave you more open to new ideas and new historical analysis than suspicion.”

a black and white image of police officers in a row, they are firing guns and framed as if they are giving a Nazi salute.

Curious audiences may be surprised by the history that Power surveys. The militarization of the police in the USA goes hand in hand with the rise of American military operations assuming a policing role abroad in wars like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Meanwhile, the film tells how policing offered a route to “whiteness.” Ford explores how Irish and Italian immigrants previously faced suppression comparable to racialized minorities, albeit with forms of corporeal punishment that afforded them somewhat more dignity, yet they eventually “graduated” to becoming accepted as white through the rise of Irish and Italian officers among police ranks.

Alternatively, suspicion invites a different tone. “Suspicion means that you go in with a position that you’re ultimately interested in defending against an analysis that you might receive as an attack,” Ford observes. “Going in defensively will put you on a different footing with a film. It will have you going tit for tat as you’re watching the film, as opposed to receiving it like a lesson—not indoctrination, but as history that, as a filmmaker for example, I didn’t know before making this film. It’s less about what suspicion and curiosity teach you and more about the frame of mind that either of those positions puts you in and then colours your perception of the film.”

The Power of a Follow-up

Ford’s sense of curiosity offers an arresting moment late in the film when his voice interjects from behind the camera. This time, he asks Georgetown law professor Christy Lopez a follow-up when she states, “The biggest problem with policing today is that most of the harm that policing causes is perfectly legal.” Lopez adds that the legality is scary because “we” allow it.

A woman with brown hair sits in front of a pink and purple background. She is wearing a black shirt.
Christy Lopez | Netflix

Ford questions Lopez’s use of the collective here to learn more about the police brutality that she suggests Americans permit. When asked what makes that question especially significant in a film filled with interviews—significant in the sense that Ford’s voice becomes more prominent and the pacing of the film changes dramatically—Ford says he had to convey the unease in the interview room to make the impact of the exchange resonate.

“She realised that she had told me something that I hadn’t actually known before when she said that most of the things the police do are legal,” explains Ford. “That’s a moment, formally, where the construct of the interview breaks down. We let my much-delayed response happen in real time. We include the material of Christy fixing her lipstick and drinking her water, all the things that we usually don’t include in an interview, which point to a person’s humanity and the fact that they’re sitting in a chair for hours and hours. You can see in the film when she says, ‘It’s scary, right?’  It was important to include my reaction to let the scene play out as it did in the interview. It was a real genuine response.”

The query perfectly illustrates the power of curiosity. Ford asks a question not as a challenge, but in search of clarity.

The Inevitability of It All

Ford’s surprise to Lopez’s answer is significant, especially when it appears nearly an hour into a film stacked with an array of images of police brutality. Archival excerpts convey historical accounts of lynchings and the growth of the Ku Klux Klan. News excerpts and cellphone videos show the beating of Rodney King and the murder of George Floyd as contemporary iterations of the police state exercising its might. As images of America’s violent past bridge to this uncomfortable interviewee, Lopez’s remark synthesizes the inevitability of its out-of-control policing.


“There are nearly one million ways of policing if there are nearly one million police officers in the United States and the impact what they do is legal, and the way in which legality is determined is based on individual judgment,” observes Ford. “That means that, encounter by encounter, you have no way of knowing what your interaction with a police officer is going to be if it’s always based on the real-time assessment of that individual officer.”

The conversation offers Ford a chance to query the sense of powerlessness that arises when police interpret and enforce the law as they please. “There’s no standard, there’s no baseline, if it’s up to individual officers’ discretion and knowing that it’s legal,” Ford says. “When you think about that, you run a lot of things back in your mind. That’s how we got to Breonna Taylor; that’s how we got to Mike Brown; that’s how we got to George Floyd. That’s how we got to fill in the blank in the United States. It was a moment in the interview where I was genuinely stunned by her explanation.”

The Power of the Essay

Part of what makes that exchange in the film so powerful is simply the presence of Ford’s voice. The director narrates and provides context atop the archival excerpts. Coming after Strong Island, in which Ford became part of the onscreen story while navigating his transition and the coded systems of gender, he remains an offscreen presence in Power. His soft-spoken phrasing nevertheless proves equally effective.

“With Strong Island, my character was part of the story even though we were making that film for five years before I sat down for an interview,” explains Ford. With Power, I’m really embracing the essay form. There’s a great tradition of essay documentaries that feature the voice of the directors, but they don’t appear on camera. I see Power falling into that tradition.”

A black and white archival photo of a Black woman in an overcoat and hat walking quickly past two white police officers in uniform.

Ford’s film indeed situates itself in the tradition of classic essay films like Sans Soleil and F for Fake, or recent works like A Night of Knowing Nothing and Milisuthando, which use a dexterous interplay between images to create emotional and intellectual associations. Ford’s voice explores the fissures between the historical images and contemporary ones.

The director adds that his voice became more prominent as part of the collaborative process that arose during post-production. “It’s funny because there wasn’t much more than my opening in the film at first,” notes Ford. “When we did a rough cut screening and a feedback screening, we got notes from our colleagues at Netflix as well. There was sort of a universal demand for more of my voice in the movie. At first, I had not imagined that I would be a voice in the film. But it was pretty clear that one of the elements that was needed was my voice as the essayistic guide.”

The Cops’ Voices

While Ford uses the essay form to make a pointed argument, Power also includes the voices of current and former police offers in the conversation. Chief among them is Inspector Charlie Adams of Minneapolis. He lets Ford accompany him on rides throughout the 4th Precinct, just one precinct away from the site of George Floyd’s murder. Inspector Adams has frank admissions about the trade-offs between privacy and safety when it comes to surveillance. However, he also addresses problems within the system that might inspire people to (re)turn to crime. (Power also features interviews with former officers Redditt Hudson and Kalfani Ture, who echo some of Adams’ sentiments.)

Inspector Charlie Adams | Netflix

Ford says that Adams was receptive when asked to participate in a documentary about police violence. “He wanted us to see the things that he was doing with his staff. He wanted to be able to talk about the fact that he and other officers had gone to the Holocaust Museum to learn about complicity of police in the Holocaust,” explains Ford. Adams also shares how they found echoes of this violence in America’s past by taking cops to The Legacy Sites in Montgomery, Alabama, which memorialize the number of lynchings in the USA.

“He really wanted to show us the ways in which he was trying to educate his officers about the roles that police have played in some of our darkest chapters in American history,” adds Ford. “But you see the limits of Charlie’s desire to solve the problem of youth crime versus the way that the system handles young people. It really helps you understand how even someone with the best intentions is limited by the power of the institution in which they work.”

Demanding Change

Ford ultimately wrestles with the limitations of power as he presents the final choice to viewers. The film climaxes with the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. Power offers the familiar images of immediate anger and leads to deeper observations about the roots of inequality, like housing insecurity, food insecurity, and unemployment.

“What folks saw after George Floyd was a window where we would try to address policing and this definition of public safety on a national level,” says Ford. “That we would actually begin to have the conversation about what’s necessary to keep communities safe. Does our notion of public safety in the 21st century really begin with policing? Or does it begin from a different understanding of what public safety is?”

Ford’s voice returns to consider how the moment harnessed an appetite for change that wasn’t fully realized. Despite the palpable frustration in his voice, Ford ends with a reminder that change doesn’t come without a demand.

“Here we are, four years after the murder of George Floyd, and as the film very clearly argues, we are back to the status quo,” observes Ford. “There’s a pretty consistent bipartisan funding of police by every president in the billions of dollars since 1968 with LBJ. That continues today with President Biden. I don’t think that’s going to change in the near future. The work to redefine public safety using the terms set by the communities where public safety is an issue, though, that work will continue. I don’t know when that work is going to rise to a national level again, because I don’t know when there will be a politician or a president courageous enough to take that issue on. But it’s something that people are not willing to give up on in communities around the country.”

Power streams on Netflix beginning May 17.


Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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