It’s opening night for the 3rd annual Houston Latino Film Festival at Talento Bilingue de Houston. There’s free beer; I’ve run into an old friend; I’ve somehow gotten into a discussion about the education system in Texas with someone I’d just met. The prior two opening nights, in 2016 and 2017, featured explosive films, Viva (2015) and Dolores (2017) respectively, and this one was no different. Crime + Punishment (2018), a documentary directed by Stephen Maing, focuses on the NYPD 12, a group of 12 police officers of color, active and retired, who are suing the city of New York and the NYPD for forcing them to meet racial quotas through trumped up arrest charges, despite quotas having been outlawed by the city. Two of the original 12 police officers, Adhyl Polanco and Derick Waller, are in attendance, though now retired from police work. A group, composed mostly of black and brown bodies, file into the theater. We all watch the movie together. Its gravity pushes us all down into our seats.
It perhaps goes without saying what was on most of our minds in that room, watching a movie about institutional corruption, racist and discriminatory practices, and the military industrial complex in a US police force: I know this; we’ve known this. We get reminders. Stephon Clark was murdered by police a few days earlier from tonight for having a cell phone, interpreted by police as a gun, in Sacramento, California. Us Houstonians have it built in our DNA, too: less than an hour’s drive away, Sandra Bland; in 1977, Joe Campos Torres; less than a year ago, Marlin Gipson had a dog sic’d on him and tazed after being confronted by police for giving out his yard work business card door-to-door (arrested for ‘failure to identify’ and ‘evading arrest,’ both charges were dropped for insufficient evidence.) We get it (well, you know. Except those who don’t). But, here’s the thing. The movie shows how hell freezes over: police officers not only admitting openly that racism exists in police departments and in their policing, but also trying to stop it from happening.
Each of the officers recognize how rare of a species they are. As such, the movie keenly maneuvers between macro to micro, micro to macro, etc., if you will, to show how these officers are operating against a machine much larger and older than themselves: a title card with facts/figures; a shot (from a drone? I bet it’s a drone) of New York, the port water shimmering gold from the sun, overlaid with a non-diegetic phone call between one of the whistleblowers and the director; an induction ceremony for fresh police academy graduates with a speech by former Commissioner William Bratton leading a recitation of a police oath; a shot of South Bronx, snowy and windy; then the camera finally rests on Officer Sandy Gonzales looking in a mirror, buttoning up his shirt to get ready for another day on the force, anxious. The director is deft in these movements so that you won’t forget what’s at stake, what energy is flowing between all these injustices.