The Blood Is at the Doorstep opens, as so many documentaries on the subject of police shootings do, with the sights and sounds of a city — in this case Milwaukee — under siege. It isn’t until we flash back two years and progressively work our way to the present that we come to discover these violent images are not taken from the story that’s about to unfold. If anything, they are in direct response to it.
The reason police were called to the scene in the first place? A Starbucks employee determined the (presumably homeless) black guy stretched out on the ground not far from the front door was bad for business. After speaking with Dontre Hamilton, the black man in question, the officers determined that he posed no threat. But that decision wasn’t good enough for the persistent barista. When another pair of officers returned, they bypassed Dontre, choosing instead to address the employee directly. No laws had been broken, and with no crime to enforce, the officers were on their way.
Perhaps astonishingly, a third officer arrived on the scene, and a struggle ensued. Dontre grabbed the officer’s nightstick, and in no time the bullet-riddled corpse of the 31-year-old man lay face-down on the pavement.
The shooting might have been just another newspaper headline were it not for the dogged efforts on the parts of Dontre’s mother, Maria, and his older brother Junior to unite a community through action. Police chief Ed Flynn describes the incident — an unarmed schizophrenic taking 14 shots from a lone police officer’s pistol — as “a tragedy arising out of untreated mental illness in a public space that resulted in violence.” Talk such as this initially places Flynn on somewhat sympathetic footing. It takes a few reels — and comments like, “There’s not a social problem in America that apparently can’t be solved by more training for the police” — before his resistive nature may be fully surmised.
Erik Ljung is a Milwaukee-based filmmaker and a former SDSU student who worked as a photojournalist at the Daily Aztec from about 2005–2008. Acting as his own publicist, director/producer/cinematographer Ljung contacted me with news that his debut feature will be playing as part of this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival at the Museum of Photographic Arts. (Don’t worry. I exercised my right as a San Diegan to give the Northern California native a little good-natured needling for moving from paradise to Milwaukee.)
Ljung devoted three years of his life to filming Dontre’s story, and it’s his close personal relationship with the Hamilton family and the honesty that pours from it that at times makes the film difficult to watch.
Dontre’s shooting took place in April 2014. Ljung’s story of a man suffering from a condition that he did not deserve to take 14 bullets for changed four months later. After the Ferguson riots, Dontre’s story became one of race, not mental illness. (It didn’t help that the family was forced to sweat out every second of the months it took after the shooting before a charging decision against the officer was reached.) According to Junior, 60 percent of the people placed under arrest have mental health issues, while our police departments are staffed by officers who have no idea how to deal with the mentally ill. The motto of his family’s non-militant struggle to unify the city is, “Damage won’t bring justice.”
Allow me to stray from the subject of criticism for a couple of paragraphs to briefly address the problem as it affects us at home. The homeless who once inhabited the Gaslamp have slowly migrated north to Hillcrest where it’s virtually impossible to make a move without being panhandled, sometimes with extreme prejudice. On an average evening, the parking lot of the Jack in the Box on University and Eighth looks like a shooting gallery (needles, not guns).
More and more homeless attacks on Hillcrest residents and businesses are being reported. At the risk of igniting the wrath of firefighters, how much space does one need to sleep comfortably in and cook chili?
Might not the $9.2 million price tag attached to Hillcrest’s new fire house have been better spent on a center to house and rehabilitate our city’s homeless population? Or does someone have to be killed in order to resolve the problem?
The film ends on a note of recursive anguish as Junior sits before a screen watching another victim trying to make sense of his brother’s death at the hands of a cop. With a little image manipulation, the picture within the picture could be interpreted as a Droste-effect copy of itself.
There is no reason why The Blood Is at the Doorstep shouldn’t find a distribution deal.
Here’s hoping it does. But just in case this turns out to be your only chance to see it, the film plays at MoPA at 7 p.m. on Sunday, February 4. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Ljung and Dameion Perkins, Dontre’s eldest brother. For more information, visit: ff.hrw.org/film/blood-doorstep.