Two years ago, the world was shaken by the racially-charged murder of George Floyd. There was a revolutionary and visceral reaction to the injustice, but it was not the first time something like this had occurred. Institutionalised racism has obviously suffocated the United States of America throughout its history, and even though society pretends it’s something of the past, it clearly isn’t. There’s nothing more terrifying than how prominent unprovoked racist attacks are in the twenty-first century. Another horrific tragedy, similar to that of Floyd, occurred in 2011. THE KILLING OF KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN is the dramatic retelling of this story.
From executive producer Morgan Freeman, the film, told in real-time and based on audio recordings, chronicles the events leading up to the death of Kenneth Chamberlain Sr (Frankie Faison), an African-American man. Chamberlain is seventy years old, a former marine, and suffers from bipolar disorder as well as a heart condition. At 5.20am, Kenneth accidentally triggers his medical alarm while half-asleep, and three police officers are dispatched to check on him. Chamberlain is confused by their presence, as he didn’t mean to set off the alarm, and is afraid because of previous negative experiences with police. He insists there is no emergency, but the police won’t back down. By 7.00am, Chamberlain is dead.
The film is a brutal and difficult watch, but that is, by all means, the intention. It wants to anger and disturb its audience, which it succeeds in doing. What is so evident here is the helplessness of Chamberlain and the pure hatred and ego of the police. The three officers, Parks (Steve O’Connell), Jackson (Ben Marten) and Rossi (Enrico Natale), all have a part to play. Although Jackson is more overt with his bigotry, good-cop Rossi is overwhelmed by the power of his superiors, despite any good intentions.
From the get-go, it is evident that Chamberlain poses no threat. He is a confused and sick old man who just wants to be left in peace. The police clearly have their own preconceptions about people like Kenneth, made known when they comment on his run-down apartment building and the illegal activities he may be involved in. Their attitudes and power-trip push them to use excessive force against the harmless Chamberlain, to a point where it never should have gotten. What is also frightening is that Chamberlain isn’t alone. For a majority of the runtime, he is on the phone with the dispatcher from the medical company, as well as taking calls from concerned family. Outside in the stairwell, there are witnesses trying to negotiate with the police, including Chamberlain’s niece. Even united, they have no power over the police - or the system.
Faison is a veteran character actor and has been in the game for years and this is a career-defining moment for him. He is masterful as he expertly portrays Chamberlain’s spiral into confusion and disorientation, anger through his bulging bloodshot eyes, and fear with his quivering voice. He uses his physicality to effortlessly switch between a vulnerable old man and ex-marine father, composing himself as he assures his children that he’s okay.
Director David Midell may not have had a blockbuster budget, but it works in his favour. The single location instils tense claustrophobia, the handheld camera reiterates the chaos of the situation, and the tight runtime allows for events to unfold in real-time, which results in authentic storytelling. However, particularly during the film’s more climactic moments, the score becomes loud and overbearing to a point where it’s distracting. It’s not needed, as the other technical elements and performances are already doing a fine job of making our hearts pound.
THE KILLING OF KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN is an uncomfortable watch, and audiences will be grateful for the film’s taut runtime. The film showcases a powerful lead performance and serves as an irrefutable condemnation of police brutality.