'Black and Blue' director Dylan Avery says America's law enforcement system is broken
Dylan Avery documents scathing cases of police brutality in stunning detail and voices the need for a change in America's law enforcement system which he says is highly unjust
Celebrated filmmaker Dylan Avery, who rose to prominence after directing the renowned 911 film 'Loose Change', is back with possibly the most confronting and powerful documentary of the year — 'Black and Blue'.
With his latest work, Avery tackles the confronting topic of police brutality, racial issues and social justice in America. 'Black and Blue' is a riveting documentary about police brutality that follows sensitive cases including a DJ beat up by off-duty DEA agents, a man arrested for filming a police officer, and many others as they fight for justice for their loved ones.
Featuring Method Man, Charlie Murphy, and Flavor Flav, the documentary aims to bring the discussion on police culture to the fore and hold the system, rather than individual officers, accountable for the unreasonable use of force, numerous cover-ups, and engaging in double standards when it comes to bringing victims of such brutality to justice.
Meaww spoke the critically acclaimed director, who gave a vivid, boots-on-the-ground perspective on ground realities surrounding the issue.
What motivated you to make this documentary?
Well, I had already seen on Facebook and on the Internet a rise of articles about police brutality and injustice, people being beaten up, being shot. I noticed a larger trend of it happening more and more. And while that was happening, I had run-ins of my own with LA Deputy Sheriffs when I wasn't doing anything wrong but these guys were patrolling a small middle-upper-class neighborhood and were bored, so they were driving around, looking for things to do. In between what was happening in the country and my local run-ins with the law, the trial of Kelly Thomas happened. I was driving to an editing job in Malibu every day, so I would put on KPCC and listen to the trial. The officers were eventually found not guilty and so I, along with many people, was surprised, shocked and angry. I couldn't go to the first rally because I was driving across the country at the time, but when I got back to LA, I went to the second rally. That's when the whole process kind of started and kicked off.
Do you think the situation has improved? Have the cops become more empathetic?
I would say it's slightly changed for the better. I mean, you're seeing more and more officers actually getting convicted for these kinds of things, which is great to see. I'm very curious to see how the situation in Dallas pans out, with Botham Jean and Officer Guyger. Botham was a guy that was killed inside his own apartment when he wasn't doing anything wrong. While we got toxicology results and the search warrant results within 72 hours, we still don't have the toxicology report of the officer; So, the double standards and the system of protection are still very much in place, but thankfully, we're at least seeing less and less of it as we progress. I would say that people are more aware of police brutality and the problem definitely hasn't gone away, but it's definitely gotten better.
If I may ask, which story hit you the most among those documented in your film?
I would probably say the story of Liz and Everitt, the parents of Bobby Henning. I mean, they definitely weren't the only ones that started the whole thing, but theirs was the main case that I followed. I was expecting them to go to trial but then they didn't and agreed to a settlement. However, I was right there with them for every step of the way. I kept in touch with a lot of people in the film but Liz and Everitt were definitely the ones that I was keyed into the most. I was closely following developments in the case wherein these two people that had just met each other, just gotten married, and then a couple months later, Bobby was killed. They really have been through a lot as a couple. And I think one of the most inspiring things about them is how they managed to handle it.
Some of the people that I interviewed didn't even make it into the film. It was interesting to see how these events affected their relationships and their families. That said, Liz and Everitt were the opposite of that. The fact that they stuck together and the ordeal didn't drive them apart is remarkable. If anything, it brought them closer. Even Bobby himself for that matter; This was a kid that was driving to go see his daughter and had a freakout. Instead of getting mental help, he got killed. Also, this case is kind of the centerpiece to the film as well.
According to you, are these cases outliers or is the majority of law enforcement brutal and insensitive?
I can't paint anyone with a wide brush, but I can definitely say that within the culture of the LA Deputy sheriffs, they're way more aggressive. They have three years of mandatory service as a jail guard before they're allowed out on the streets, which is a little frightening to me because they're basically dealing with violent criminals day-in and day-out for three years and then suddenly they're let loose on the public. I think it's a system-wide problem in Los Angeles County, especially with the number of gangs that have been revealed to exist within that system. This is stuff that was only murmured about while I was shooting and then eventually Officer Tanaka got in trouble, the lawsuits came out and now it's confirmed that he was a part of the Lynwood Vikings, for example.
Having said that, I know good cops. Some of them have also featured in the film. So, I definitely can't say that all cops are bad without a doubt. While it is certainly up to the individual for the most part, it's also up to the policies and the systems that are in place, that hire and train certain individuals and decide how they are trained. So, it's not necessarily the individual cops, but moreover, the system that's in place to train them to respond in a certain way, to train them to say things a certain way, and also to testify a certain way. So I'd say the system is still very much in need of fixing.
Do you think the police, or rather "the system", is racist towards criminals from minorities?
All you have to do is look at the disproportionate amount of African Americans that are locked up for non-violent drug offenses as compared to Caucasians. It's pretty obvious that there's definitely a disparity in the justice system. It feels like every time there's a mass shooting by a white guy, for instance, they manage to bring him in alive despite the fact that he just killed a whole bunch of people. There are always pictures of them in cuffs being brought in. In the case of Dylann Roof, the guy that killed a bunch of people in a church, authorities took him to Burger King after his arrest. Some of these people, in connection with cases that are covered in the film and also not covered in the film, were either unarmed or running away from the police. Quite a few of them weren't even doing anything wrong. So, I think race definitely plays a part in that and is definitely an element. But then you also have the case of Bobby Henning, who was just a white kid with white parents and he wound up with the same fate. So while there is definitely an element of racism to it, it's more of a behavioral issue.
Many states have made body cameras mandatory for law enforcement officers. Do you think things have become more transparent and fair after they put on these recording devices and started recording footage in real-time?
Well, that was a big debate while I was shooting and a lot of the families were for it. However, the argument against it, I heard, was that the cameras point outward and don't show the other side. The body cameras, many argue, are inherently designed to capture the "suspect" or unfortunately, the victim, in some cases. I think they're a great addition if you have a situation in which a bunch of officers are standing around in a group and one of them is facing the aggressive cop that does something wrong, then you'll have a clear shot of it. So, it's a step towards more accountability and transparency, and thankfully we are seeing more and more body camera videos being released. The guy that was killed in the hallway in Vegas while crawling towards the officers and attempting to pull his pants up got shot. That's unfortunately and fortunately all on body camera. I'm pretty sure that officer got convicted. The guy had "You're f*cked" inscribed into his gun and here people still want to discuss the culture of police and whether or not there's still a problem. That guy was still on the force.
Many had compared it to the situation in the Catholic church where they'll take a bad cop and just put them in another division. That's what happened with the officer that killed Tamir Rice. The officer had already gotten in trouble for having an emotional breakdown on the firing range. In response, they just transferred him over to Cleveland, where he killed Tamir Rice. So yeah, while the body cameras are definitely a step forward, they're definitely not the solution.
According to you, what is the solution to the issue of police brutality?
I think better training. Being taught to disarm is more important than being taught to kill. Furthermore, I think a larger, honest conversation about our police culture, law enforcement, justice system and what it does to people will play a big part in it. An honest and open communication is really the only way to solve any problem and I feel like we're slowly starting to have a talk about the police issue. Having said that, it's definitely not the open, honest conversation that it should be, as yet. Also, nothing happens overnight. I think it's been a slow, gradual change and a change for the better. Unfortunately, I can't propose a one-off solution other than suggesting that officers need to be better trained. I also think that law enforcement is held to a higher standard and also a lower standard when it comes to being punished for things.
If people felt that police officers were treated the same way that they are in similar situations, they would be more comfortable. For example, if I burst into someone's apartment and killed them, I would already be in jail probably. If the same existed for officer Amber Guyger, people wouldn't still be marching in the streets for justice because they feel like they're not getting it. I acknowledge that things are slowly getting better, and at the same time, people are still very much upset about this as they should be. And that's purely because there hasn't been a real, tangible step forward. You know, apart from a couple of convictions here and there, we can't say that the problem's finally fixed. So, it is imperative to have better training, better legislation, and maybe a little bit less power in the hands of the police unions.
How do we bridge the gap and increase the level of trust between the African American community, or any other minorities for that matter, and cops?
I would say better communication between the two communities. Also, more transparency when these horrible things happen. If there is a shooting involving officers, the chief needs to come right out and say this is a bad shooting and ultimately do something about it. Obviously, there are dangerous people out there that need to be taken care of, but I don't think anything justifies the unreasonable use of excessive force.
Officer Alex Salazar's story was really fascinating. Could you give us an insight into what he went through and what made him take the decisions that he took?
Alex is somebody who joined the police force to protect and to serve. He grew up watching police shows and idolized the concept of the good guy with a badge and he wanted to be that good guy. Two years into the force, as he's trying to protect somebody in the streets, he gets jumped. And this is two years into what he was hoping was going to be a long and storied police career, but seven years later, after a lot of personal and professional issues, he had to walk away from the LAPD. Thankfully, he didn't just give up and quit and drank himself to death as some officers do. He decided to take his skills elsewhere and became a private investigator. He began working with families that have lost a loved one to the police. That is one of several reasons that I managed to run into him in the first place.
So, he's very much a redemption arc and that's the main thing I tried to do with him in the film. I mean he's already well on his way but it was really great to be there because I met him right before Ferguson happened. We had started scheduling our interview. Then Michael Brown was killed. We did our interview a couple of days later. He flew to Ferguson the next day came back with a bunch of footage. I then did a follow-up interview with him and right then I knew that while I had a main thread with the Hennings, I really wanted a law enforcement perspective, I didn't want the tone to be one-sided. I didn't want to be accused of not trying to get the other side of this.
I mean, I tried interviewing active chiefs, active captains and others currently in the force and, of course, none of them wanted to do it. However, if I could at least get people who have been there and who are now allowed to speak. Alex was the perfect answer to that, because here's someone who's not only willing to talk about the police culture, but is now like boots-on-the-ground where all these terrific events are happening and like everyone else, is trying to make sense of all this.
What is your message to your viewers who will be watching this documentary upon its release?
Firstly, I hate to say it but I hope they enjoy the film as there's a lot of heavy stuff in there. But, more than that, I hope it is a worthy watching experience. I hope they are able to connect with the people in the film and feel like they really understood what they're going through. Thankfully, that seems to be the response so far from people who have watched it. And that's really what I set out to do because I felt that a lot of these shootings and a lot of these events were being distilled down to mere sound bytes, sensationalism, and clickbait over who were these people, who are the people they left behind, et cetera.
People who watched the film also said that they felt like they got a good insight into how this really affects people from a psychological perspective, and that's really what I wanted to try and crack in the film and thereby convey it to the audience in some fashion. I hope people watch it and get something out of it. I hope they continue to be aware of police brutality and also, I hope they watch my next film.
Black & Blue premiered exclusively on Amazon digital (Prime and instant) on November 1.