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The Thin Black Line

average rating is 3 out of 5


James Learoyd


Posted on:

May 7, 2024

Film Reviews
The Thin Black Line
Directed by:
Jim Klock
Written by:
Captain Lee Peters III, Lieutenant Deuntay Diggs, Sergeant Carol Burgess

Bill Nichols famously posed that there are six ‘modes’ of documentary based on varying levels of spectatorship, tone, and the documentarian’s active or inactive participation; The Thin Black Line would serve as a challenging study to Nichols’ celebrated rubric, for the way it’s constructed may leave the viewer uncertain about the intentions of specific moments. It really begs the question, is it possible to judge purely the formal craft of a documentary without considering its social content? - I suspect the answer is no.


This feature doc is about American law enforcement following the recent political unrest regarding police brutality; - specifically, it focuses its attention on the African American individuals working as officers and their complicated relationship to the prevalent issues about discrimination. It’s quite fascinating, and heartbreaking, to hear first-hand testimony concerning the impossible position people of colour working in the force are put in; however, the overall tone, structure and singular message of the piece often feels slightly manipulative.


Specifically, I’m trying to address the following clash of issues that this film creates: for one, it certainly feels like a movie made wholly in support of the police – it is constructed as such to guide that narrative and make its ‘argument’. This can, at points, feel icky – for lack of a better term – particularly when, for example, one white officer featured in just a short fragment of an interview reveals himself to be socially uneducated in terms of racial prejudice (although this really only happens once or twice... but you feel it). With the rhythm of the editing and the music playing, one can revulse at the idea that the audience is supposed to agree with the testimony.


On the other hand, (and this is very important) the most valuable element of the film comes from the continual attention paid to the voices of black officers. Their stories, perspectives – no matter how they’ve been structured in the documentary’s making – are important to hear. There are some perceptive things said, some harsh truths spoken; and agree with them or not, their purpose is to be thought-provoking. It’s disturbing to hear, for example, the ways in which an African American individual – when choosing to work in law – experiences a sense of individual alienation. They discuss a deeply upsetting questioning of identity, and how the world views them with scepticism more so than others within the profession.


So -- the picture, as intriguing and valid as it often is, holds problems which are difficult to overlook; and most of this is due to the way the film is made as opposed to the content itself. To circle back to Bill Nichols, arguably a solution to this cognitive dissonance would be to have the piece be purely observational... Were it a series of extended interviews of a politically confrontational (even persuasive) nature – without any music, expressive transitions, or provocative B-roll – then we could view the film without any concern that we’re being manipulated by technique. Present is the potential for great documentary filmmaking for it contains all the pieces of an incredible social document.

About the Film Critic
James Learoyd
James Learoyd
Documentary, Indie Feature Film
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