Skip to main content

Copwatch review: an intimate yet frustrating look at efforts to film the police

Copwatch review: an intimate yet frustrating look at efforts to film the police


Camilla Hall tells some intimate personal stories, but loses the bigger picture around the efforts to change policing by filming cops

Share this story

Image: Tribeca Film Festival

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. We’re currently reporting from the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

The activism documentary Copwatch begins with a discomforting montage: the death of Eric Garner in New York City, the Baltimore arrest of Freddie Gray, and the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. All three are black men who died at police hands under suspect circumstances, setting off waves of national protests and contributing to an ongoing contentious atmosphere around policing and lethal violence, especially against demonstrably unarmed black citizens. And in all three cases, the footage spread across the internet, inspiring protests.

As Copwatch notes, flashing back to the 1991 police beating of Rodney King, the conversation around police violence changes radically when people can watch and rewatch the events for themselves. The videos that open Copwatch have become familiar flashpoints and rallying cries, and they carry a hefty emotional resonance. They’re a natural lead-in for a doc about the ways increased video monitoring of police activity is changing how citizens, activists, and legislators look at and engage with the police.

But Copwatch never gels into that documentary. Director Camilla Hall starts off looking at the organization We Copwatch, which puts cameras into citizens’ hands and trains them about their legal rights and obligations when it comes to filming police. But then it diverges into a more diffuse portrait of We Copwatch’s most famous members, and it loses track of the bigger picture. It becomes an intimate and often painful story with plenty of close-up access to its subjects, but it’s frustrating to see how much bigger this topic is than the film supposedly documenting it.

What’s the genre?

Cinema vérité, fly-on-the-wall documentary. 

What’s it about?

Citizen efforts to document police violence, and in the process, help deescalate tense situations and bring accountability to police usage of violence.

What’s it really about?

That’s a good question, and it’s hard to find an answer in the documentary, which keeps shifting focus. Unfortunately, by the end, it largely feels like it’s about how unsatisfying and unhelpful filming police actually is.

Is it good?

The biggest problem Copwatch faces is that it never provides a meaningful context for its best scenes. Hall seems to want to follow in the footsteps of the terrific doc The Interrupters, Steve James’ look at a Chicago organization of volunteers who personally, physically intervene in street violence. She follows members of We Copwatch as they chase and confront police on the street, questioning their behavior and serving as vocal, engaged witnesses. And then she dives deeply into the developing stories of two men: New York’s Ramsey Orta, a friend of Eric Garner who recorded the infamous video of his death, and Baltimore’s Kevin Moore, who captured the footage of a screaming Freddie Gray being dragged into a police van. After the Garner video went viral, Orta was repeatedly arrested on charges related to drugs and domestic violence; he claims the charges are false, though the film makes no effort to explore that question. Moore, meanwhile, rails against the system as he sees the officers involved in Gray’s death suspended, charged, and ultimately acquitted, or not tried at all. 

A great deal of Copwatch focuses on Orta and Moore’s lives, both in relation to the video and in general. Through We Copwatch, they become unlikely friends, traveling to Ferguson and other cities grappling with police brutality, and participating as organization founder Jacob Crawford and Ferguson convert David Whitt raise funds to buy cameras for citizens, and train new recruits. But Copwatch loses track of Crawford and the organization early on, in favor of spending more time with Orta and Moore. In the film’s most moving moment, Moore weeps as he talks to Hall’s camera about his obsessive desire to please his abusive addict father. Orta similarly has his breakdown moments, as he faces jail. And Whitt gets emotional as well, particularly when lovingly building a monument to Brown, then rebuilding it after someone burns it. These are moving personal scenes, shot with compassion and an intimate eye.

Image: Tribeca Film Festival

But by going so deep into these personal explorations, Hall loses track of the larger story. Copwatch never gives a sense of the scale of its title organization, or what it’s accomplished. It ignores the larger story of police violence and citizen reaction. There are so many obvious inroads into that story to explore — frequently chased away from arrest sites, Crawford experiments with using drones to film cops from above, but the film never openly addresses that idea. Or the rise of body cams and car cams for cops. Or the current legislative efforts to make filming police illegal. Or the growing attempts to track data on lethal police violence. Or any of the other high-profile cases of unarmed black civilians dying in police hands. Most bafflingly, the film focuses on the efforts to put cameras in the hands of as many Ferguson residents as possible — and then doesn’t follow up on that effort, or the ongoing protests and unrest in the city. When Sandra Bland’s name briefly turns up on a teddy bear meant for the revived Michael Brown memorial, it feels like a passing nod that there’s a world outside Orta and Moore’s personal experiences, and a much larger story going on.

Copwatch does spend a little time with footage shot by We Copwatch, and that footage is alarming. It frequently shows police refusing to identify themselves, and threatening members with arrest for legal activities. On the other hand, while We Copwatch aims to deescalate situations, the film just as often shows group members and other civilians escalating them, by crowding police officers and screaming in their faces— even during low-key conversations, even when the officers are standing still, trying to listen to the citizens’ concerns. Neither group comes out particularly well in the end. And Hall never does get around to offering solutions. The film ends with Orta remanding himself to prison, a sobering reminder that in so many cases around police violence, there are no easy answers or uplifting endings.

What should it be rated?

The language gets pretty salty, and the real-life recorded violence is horrific. It’s difficult to apply an MPAA rating to real footage of a tragic death. The best I cay say is that PG-13 feels appropriate, allowing this documentary to still be used in many education scenarios. This is exactly the kind of film made for parental guidance, with parents walking their kids through the relevant political issues rather than leaving them to watch on their own.

How can I actually watch it?

Copwatch is currently seeking distribution.