First time director Erik Ljung’s documentary The Blood Is at the Doorstep, which was recently shown at the New York Human Rights Film Festival — humanistically captures a family’s struggle with a criminal justice system that is inadequate at addressing the fatal police shooting of an unarmed man. The film’s subject victim, 31-year-old Dontre Hamilton, was fatally shot 14 time by police officer Christopher Manney in 2014 on a bright afternoon at Red Arrow Park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As the The Blood Is at the Doorstep begins, so does the Hamilton family’s emotionally grueling struggle with legal structures designed to preserve the status quo at the expense of individuals unjustly marginalized by that same system.
Ljung sharply kicks off his film with a shot of the Starbucks which looms over Red Arrow Park, and he purposefully returns to footage of the megacorp several times. As Ljung’s argument goes, perhaps the first 911 from a Starbucks employee about Dontre Hamilton — who was simply sleeping in a public park in front of the store — could be vaguely explained away as concern. But once two officers had already confirmed Dontre was acting within his rights, a second 911 call from a Starbucks employee implies discrimination against an idle, young black man lying down in a park.
Ultimately, Dontre Hamilton had to endure three police encounters at Red Arrow Park without ever having committed a violation. His fatal third encounter was with Officer Manney. Witnessing each member of the Hamilton family provide plain and often disarmingly soft-spoken accounts about how an innocuous early afternoon turned horrific should set one’s antennae a bristle. Indeed, the more unnecessary police encounters, the greater chance at an undesirable outcome — a problem “broken windows policing” proponents all too readily dismiss.
As to the altercation, The Blood Is at the Doorstep reveals that Manney had hastily determined without sufficient cause that Dontre had a weapon, and commenced to illegally stop and frisk him. A scuffle ensued in which Manney took out his baton, purportedly for self-defense, and swung at Dontre with it. Dontre wrestled the baton away from Manney, and while there are disputes as to whether Dontre then struck Manney, photographic evidence presented in the film indicates otherwise.
It would have been fitting for Ljung to have introduced these facts swiftly. However, several investigative findings in The Blood Is at the Doorstep are tangled in legal details, and presented in taxing piecemeal. This structure detracts from an even greater emotional investment into the Hamilton family’s efforts to grieve and to eventually develop as grassroots activists against police departmental procedures and misconduct. Various interview clips explaining different legal standards is particularly problematic given that The Blood Is at the Doorstep is a 90-minute film — a format better suited for a seamless emotional ride rather than one interrupted by efforts to provide overly constrained legal analysis.
On the other hand, Ljung thrives when he invests in sustained, lived-in scenes of the Hamilton family. Here, there is plenty of character growth to establish a satisfying cinematic narrative. For example, in an earlier scene, Dontre’s brother Nate is standing by a snow plow truck, discussing what he’s going to do when he retires. Later in the film, Nate is seen wearing glasses, eloquently speaking at a night meeting for the Coalition for Justice, a political grassroots organization he co-founded to address police misconduct and brutality. This kind of poignantly captured character transformation distinguishes The Blood Is at the Doorstep as a dynamic film as opposed to another textual-orientated missive.
Likewise, the Hamilton family’s journey into night time protests and rallies is a rich piece of cinema verite. At a town hall meeting ruptured by a cacophony of polarized factions — some protesting Dontre’s senseless death, and others the Milwaukee Police Department’s firing of Manney — Ljung assuredly moves from one perspective to the next. He’s confident in his material; there’s no musical embellishments or manufactured emphasis of any one position. As a result, the audience gets a full flavor for the appalling factionalism which eclipses what should be the unified purpose of the meeting: to address that an unarmed man was shot 14 times by a police officer.
Also notable is footage of the Coalition for Justice’s protest at a Christmas lighting ceremony, where the traditional meaning of a yearly rite is acutely challenged. For proponents of the status quo, “the holidays” must mean hot chocolate and uninterrupted carols. But for the Hamiltons, who could no longer endure systemic intransigence, “the holidays” is a necessary forum to remind them about an unwarranted death of an unarmed man and to make urgent protestations for peaceful change. Ljung brings his camera right to the forefront of a difficult scene, a move which asks: which side are you on?
There are fair attempts throughout The Blood Is at the Doorstep to present Milwaukee authorities’ perspective on Dontre Hamilton’s shooting. Ultimately, however, explanations and arguments are heavily leveraged to the Hamilton family’s position that the criminal justice system does not address the concerns of black America and the mentally ill (when he was younger, Dontre was diagnosed with Schizophrenia). Of course, this point is well taken and necessary. However, another film is due, on that would more evenly address the daily struggles of police officers who do their jobs by the books; one which may open a more unified conversation on how our current criminal justice system needs to be changed to the mutual benefit of both sides of the blue line.
In any event, The Blood Is at the Doorstep is an auspicious cinematic debut which reminds that for every criminal justice statistic, there’s a stirring story which deserves to be deeply considered. We could use more of these stories from a variety of perspectives, and Ljung should prove to be a key player in making that happen.