Stanley Nelson and Valerie Scoon The sound of the police is a comprehensive study of the dynamics of opposition between African Americans and law enforcement, from slavery to the present.
Through a wealth of archival images, interviews with academics, authors, and a variety of deep thinkers of all backgrounds and colors, and a compelling soundtrack (in fact, the doc’s title is a nod to rapper KRS-One’s 1993 anthem against police brutality, “Sound” of da Police,” which serves as a sort of audible exclamation point throughout the ABC News Studios doc), the veteran filmmakers make a convincing case that any relationship built on the racist foundation of slave patrol is systematically doomed from the start. Which, of course, requires nothing less than a fresh start. (Let the rethinking begin!)
Just before the film debuts on Hulu on August 11, Film director checked in with the busy Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning MacArthur Fellow and his FSU producer-director-professor collaborator (who is also the former executive of Oprah’s Harpo Films).
director: How did this project come about? You’re both accomplished director-producers in your own right, so why decide to team up for this particular doc?
Nelson: I originally pitched this film to Jackie Glover, who was then at ABC News Studios, whom I’ve known for a long time. I’ve wanted to do a police film for many years, so I was delighted when she said she was on board.
With my production company Firelight Films, I have a lot going on, so I knew that this film would be much better if I could find a talented director to collaborate with me. I am grateful to have been introduced to Valerie. This is not a simple story to tell. I needed someone who could pay attention to detail every day, which Valerie was able to do.
director: How exactly did you split the directing duties? Were you both involved in every aspect of the production, from the interviews, to the archival research, to the soundtrack?
Nelson: Valerie conducted 95% of the interviews, although we collaborated on the questions for each one. And then I gave continuous notes through the rough cut, at which point I took a bigger role in finishing the film.
We focused on gathering archival footage from the beginning because it was essential to this film that we had a wealth of archival material to build the story. We made a decision early on that we wanted multiple examples of every type of police interaction we document in the film because we didn’t want an audience member to be able to say, “Oh, that was just one bad cop,” or, “That one cop just had a bad day.” When you see footage of police officers knocking black kids to the ground over and over again or handcuffing a little black girl for acting out at school, you can’t deny there’s a problem.
For the soundtrack, I was excited to collaborate again with Tom Phillips, who I’ve worked with on maybe 8 films including Attica. We work together really well. Tom’s specialty is film scores, so he’s not thrown off by you saying things like, “I think the music here is too fast,” or “No, that music is too dark.” He will not say, “What do you mean by too dark?” because he intuitively understands; he knows that filmmakers and musicians use different language to describe similar things.
director: How did you select your interviewees? Were there people you approached and particularly hoped would be involved who ultimately declined?
spoon: I started by researching and reading books, because first we wanted to engage with people who had thought deeply about this topic, and those people were usually historians and scholars. And because of Stanley’s long history of making documentaries, he has great contacts like Al Sharpton and Ben Crump, who have made civil rights issues their life’s work. In addition to these thought leaders, we wanted to engage with people who have experienced policing firsthand, whether it be victims of police brutality and their families or members of law enforcement.
Nelson: With all of my films, I make sure that the interviews include women and men, black and white people, and a variety of perspectives so that we can tell the whole story.
spoon: I’m pleased to say that probably 98% of the people we approached about being in this film responded positively. I actually interviewed maybe 20 people beforehand that we didn’t go back to for the film because we already had so much material.
director: Watching this document jam-packed with historical documents also made me wonder if you might have enough material for a series. So what aspects of this story, perhaps due to the time constraints of television, were left on the cutting room floor?
Nelson: One thing I’ve noticed about myself is that once the material is on the cutting room floor and the film is ready, I don’t think about it anymore. We spend a lot of time in the editing room and everything is carefully thought out, so when something is cut, it’s cut for a good reason. I’d go crazy if I weighed myself on that front.
spoon: I agree with Stanley; and I tell my students that if your movie can function well without that scene, then you don’t need it. with The sound of the police each section of the film could be a documentary in itself, but ultimately everything has to be in proportion, so a sense of proportion helps in editing.
director: What are your ultimate hopes for the Doctor? Is there a specific audience you intend to reach?
Nelson: I’ve never made a film that I thought should do one thing for the audience. I hope people will better understand the relationship between the African American community and the police. And I hope that people are moved to demand some reform in the police, some change in the way the police work. I think the responses to this film will be unique from the responses to the other films I’ve worked on because I think every aspect of a person’s identity—their race, age, gender—significantly colors the way they perceive and interact with the police.
spoon: This movie is for anyone who wants to see our country better. I hope that people who see it will think about how to improve the policing system and how to improve communication between the police and the communities they are supposed to serve.