Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our inscrutable whims. This week: One more time, we’re accounting for our sins of omission and looking back on the best movies of 2021 we didn’t review.
Ten years ago in White Plains, New York, senior citizen Kenneth Chamberlain made the mistake of accidentally pushing his medical-alert necklace. Less than 90 minutes later, he was dead on his living-room floor, a victim of police gunfire. The Killing Of Kenneth Chamberlain dramatizes this real-life tragedy in something like real time. It’s an effectively infuriating film.
Sticking close to the record of events, Killing follows Chamberlain (Frankie Faison) as he’s shook from his slumber and plummeted into a state of panic by the arrival of the police officers responding to the call. The cops he sees through his peephole are all pale-faced: There’s the tightly wound, visibly prejudiced one (Ben Marten); the rookie (producer/editor Enrico Natalie) who wants this to go as peacefully as possible; and the seasoned sergeant (Steve O’Connell) predictably stuck in the middle.
Chamberlain, a former Marine with a bad heart, mental issues, and a previous, unfriendly run-in with the law, refuses to open the door for the boys in blue. They take this as an insult to their authority, and though Chamberlain insists the call was a mistake and he doesn’t need help, they begin ordering him to open the door or they’ll find their own way inside.
A chaotic, claustrophobic chamber piece that takes place entirely in one setting (or two, if you count both the apartment and the hallway outside it), Killing is all about escalating paranoia. The whole thing is a stand-off between two distrustful parties, both afraid of what lies behind a door. But while Chamberlain’s suspicion is rooted in past experience, the police are using wild speculation about what the old man might be hiding to justify their ignorant aggression. It’s downright frustrating watching the cops go out of their way to be bad at their jobs, ignoring the offers of Chamberlain’s niece (Angela Peel) to talk to her uncle and calm his nerves. Had none of them ever dealt with a senile grandpa who refused to leave his bedroom? At the end of the film, we hear real recordings of the officers, one of whom called Chamberlain the N-word alongside the other taunts and threats they issued.
Mostly the film works as a showcase for Faison, a veteran actor who has delivered memorable turns in movies like Coming To America and TV shows like The Wire. (He just won the Gotham Award for his performance here.) As writer/director David Midell keeps the camera tightly zoomed in on the star’s anxiety-ridden face, often hitting us with sound effects and audio flashbacks to illuminate what’s going on in his head, Faison presents Chamberlain as someone who’s scared and confused but still determined to stand his ground. He’s less ferocious, though, than the real man we hear in those audio recordings, who seemed ready to go down swinging if the pigs busted down his door. By contrast, you can hear the helplessness in Faison’s voice, frightened and unsure even as he moves his furniture to barricade the door.
The Killing Of Kenneth Chamberlain, which premiered a couple years ago e years ago but finally received a general commercial release this past autumn, packs a lot of suspense and sorrow into just an hour and 21 minutes. What it ultimately offers is a brief, unsettling refresher course for anyone still having trouble—after everything that happened in 2020—understanding why people of color have every right and reason to fear the police.
Availability: The Killing Of Kenneth Chamberlain is currently streaming on HBO Max. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital services.