Featured image: Frankie Faison as Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., in The Killling of Kenneth Chamberlain. (Courtesy of Redbird Publicity.)
Directed by David Midell. Written by David Midell. Starring Frankie Faison, Steve O’Connell, Enrico Natale. Runtime 1h 23 min. Released theatrically on September 17, 2021; on HBO Max on November 19, 2021.
This review contains mild spoilers.
I love the feeling of going into a film knowing as little as possible. For The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain, I didn’t know what to expect other than its tragic end. Director and writer David Midell throws us right into the situation.
Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. (Frankie Faison) turns over in his sleep and accidentally triggers his LifeAid pendant, which he wears because of a heart condition. Responding to this, three police officers show up to his apartment around 5:20 a.m. on November 19, 2011, for a welfare check, eventually leading to Kenneth’s tragic death.
With these unjustified killings by police, so many happen so quickly. As I didn’t know much about Chamberlain’s death, I didn’t realize it would take place over the entire film. Midell’s film is shaped very close to real-time, as the event gradually escalates over 75 or so minutes. It’s more heartbreaking as there are so many moments where the police could have simply left, as we learn in the end credits that Kenneth told them to leave at least 60 times.
Another thing we hear in the end credits is the audio of LifeAid calling the cops to cancel the welfare check because of Kenneth’s plea. The operator on the other line says, “They’re going to make entry anyway.” It doesn’t sound like he communicates with the officers, and that’s a moment that sits with me because the operator could have done more.
There are many moments like this where Kenneth’s situation could have changed. It’s so effectively shown in this taut thriller/drama, as there are countless points we feel like there’s a way out for Kenneth. We cheer for it and nearly get it, as we hold our breath knowing it’s too good to be true.
I found The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain rather remarkable. First, in the way in which it pays tribute and respect to Kenneth Chamberlain Sr.’s memory and never exploits him. It’s also a compelling drama and thriller, where we are trapped in the anxiety from the start. The handheld cinematography (by Camrin Petramale) feels necessary, as this New York apartment’s hallways are so claustrophobic. We’re right in the action, and right in the cop’s faces. When more officers are added to the mix, our walls close in even more. This made me appreciate how Kenneth must have been feeling. It’s powerful and this intimacy is such an impactful shooting style.
Also impressive is how Midell depicts both sides of the conflict on either side of the door. Starting with Frankie Faison as Kenneth, his performance is amazing. He really sells his character’s isolation and anxiety, and it’s great when we can really feel that dread. As well technical aspects like claustrophobic cinematography and frantic edits that complement his performance and atmosphere, especially the zooms in on his face.
In character, we only get to know Kenneth through this situation but learn all the facts we need to know; he’s a former Marine vet who loves his family, and is loved by them. He’s also incredibly anxious around police, especially the ones in his neighbourhood.
For his family, he talks on the phone with several of them throughout. When his son says he’ll come and help, Kenneth is adamant he doesn’t come. This is because he doesn’t want to endanger them in this situation because he knows these cops. Kenneth’s terrified but he won’t let them help. It’s one of the warmest, most heartbreaking traits to Kenneth and Faison’s performance.
For the anxiety with police, the film’s opening quote by Christopher L. Hayes describes Kenneth’s side well: “Depending on who you are, the sight of an officer can produce either a warm sense of safety and contentment, or a plummeting feeling of terror.” It’s precisely why Kenneth won’t open the door. He knows what will happen when he does.
On the other side of the door, you can feel the frustration of the officers as they aren’t let in (mind you, we’re not sympathetic). Two of the officers jump to conclusions that Kenneth is doing something illegal. The suggestions they think up are ludicrous (“what if he has a hooker tied up in there?”), and the assumptions are racially motivated because of the area. When they learn Kenneth has bipolar disorder, their eyes widen (I assume for the stigma behind the disorder).
At a certain point, a sensible cop would simply walk away, but since they’ve spent so much time on the call, they’re adamant that they’ll get into the apartment, eventually turning into a mob of officers trying to get in. It’s especially tense for Kenneth when they try to talk him down, saying “we’re just trying to help,” but their actions don’t match their words as they slam on his door.
There are three core police officers who initially show up, and they’re very distinct. A rookie named Michael Rossi (Enrico Natale; who acts, produces and edits the film) is the only sensible cop, one who questions why they still have to enter his apartment. He is what keeps us invested on that side of the door. He’s the only one with the awareness that this situation has escalated beyond their control, and whenever he questions anything, the other officers assume he’s questioning their authority.
This is especially with Sergeant Parks (Steve O’Connell) early on. When Rossi starts to bring up the manual, Parks says, “This isn’t your fifth grade classroom, this is the real world.” Parks is arguably inconsistent as a character. He’s adamant that they stay and get through the door. Then, he’ll show some sincerity (“we don’t want to have to do this, Mr. Chamberlain”), and switch back to anger with the mob mentality.
I think this can be “blamed” (I use this lightly) on him being the middle personality between Rossi and the prejudiced Officer Jackson (Ben Marten). We can tell he’s bitter he’s here from the very beginning. Marten plays the character with such convincing anger in his eyes. This officer is also the character that best displays prejudice against the neighborhood most clearly.
The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain can be seen as a character study on both sides of the door: One where a man just wants to go back to sleep after unknowingly bringing a great fear to his front door; and the other side featuring thin egos who feel like they deserve to be let in because of their authority. As soon as they’re told “no,” it’s like they need to know why they weren’t let in.
It’s a fascinating, psychological dynamic for this claustrophobic situation, which feels like a stage play. We’re in the room with Kenneth as cops pound on the door; in the hallway with the cops as they try to plow through Kenneth’s door; and we feel like we’re there on the staircase with the bystanders, unable to help as everything unfolds.