Sundance 2024: “Power” Is an Effective Introduction to the Violent History of American Policing

Drew Burnett Gregory is back at Sundance, reporting daily with queer movie reviews from one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals. Follow along for her coverage of the best in LGBTQ+ cinema and beyond. 


During the first moments of his documentary on the history of American policing, director Yance Ford (Strong Island) asks the audience for curiosity or, at least, suspicion. Then he concedes it’s up to each individual viewer to abide by this request.

Through talking head interviews, archival footage, on the ground interviews, and narration, Power lays out a clear timeline of the police from their origins to the present. It begins with slave patrols, militias tasked with stealing Indigenous land, and officers maintaining order among the working class. It then moves into the first official police forces in major cities, the blurring of police and military, the violence against social and class movements, the War on Drugs, Stop and Frisk, and the failure of diversified law enforcement.

Most of this information will be repetitive for anyone interested in the topic, but, as a Netflix documentary under 90 minutes, this is a film with a clearly defined audience. It is meant to be an introduction — a teaching tool ideal for classrooms or for adults open to change.

While Ford pointedly pulls back from showing certain footage in full, there are still a lot of upsetting images included. But if these images were enough to move those with privilege out of complacency, the abuses of the police would have ended long ago. And so it’s not the emotional plea that’s essential here — it’s the intellectual one.

Despite the short runtime, Ford is thorough in providing American Policing 101 alongside a primer on the way race manifests in this country and how that has developed — and developed alongside policing — over time.

One of Ford’s most compelling archival finds is a documentary from 1970 narrated by actor Ben Gazzara. It’s fascinating to see how policing was discussed over half a century ago and to witness the fundamental fallacies pumped into our culture about policing even then.

A section on the Kerner Commission that shows sympathetic white people passing the report out to other white people to try and change minds is harrowing in its familiarity. The government response to this report was to increase police funding. The government response to the 2020 protests was the same.

Ford includes a montage of almost every president since Lyndon B. Johnson bragging about their increase in police funding. It’s these repetitions, these cycles, that hit hardest. It’s not cynicism — it’s just reality. As journalist Wesley Lowery states, American policing has conceded nothing. They’ve doubled and tripled down on their power.

Understanding the police as a tool of racial and class subjugation and seeing how that has functioned in the U.S. and abroad — one interviewee notes that, yes, the police have been militarized, but also the military has been policified — is essential in fighting back in the present and in the future.

I’m glad this film exists as it’s easier to point people toward a short Netflix documentary than it is to get people to read a book. But the film does an excellent job showing how different groups have not only assimilated into whiteness but assimilated into American policing. I’m not sure if the problem is a lack of education about the police or a lack of will among those with any power to destroy these systems.

Those with the most power will never concede it. Many with even less won’t concede either. And so we return to Ford’s initial request. Are enough people willing to consider this history with curiosity and suspicion? How large of a majority is needed to fight the powerful minority that grants these individuals their violence? This film does not have the answers. But it prompts more people to start asking questions.


Power documentary will stream on Netflix later this year. 

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and I Heart Female Directors. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 476 articles for us.

5 Comments

  1. Could anyone tell me why the comment section has changed so dramatically?

    Historically, I go to the comment section to see what other non-staff readers thought about the article, but I’ve noticed more and more articles now where there are little to no non-staff comments from readers.

    Instead staff are effusively praising the author on how well the piece was written or how brave they are for writing about x subject, or some other praise.

    It seems strange to me that this is what the comment section is morphing into lately.

    • I have also noticed this and my theory is that there’s just been less actual reader engagement / interest since the subject editors didn’t get their contracts renewed and a lot of popular writers left in response to how that was handled.

    • Staff have always praised each other’s work, this is nothing new. Go look at any personal essay written in 2011 and you’ll see similar comments.

      As far as readers go, the AS comments section slowed down YEARS ago; now only very high traffic pieces get a lot of comments (think L Word recaps or controversial topics). A lot of other sites’ comments sections contracted around the same time, the internet has just morphed into something different. I find it very odd that you’re saying these changes happened recently.

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