David Midell’s 2021 film is a masterpiece in narrative storytelling – so much so that it won several awards for its narrative at international film festivals. Midell, the writer as well as the director, took the real-life 2011 killing of Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr. and the assorted phone records, police records, and other case files and turned them into a heartbreaking, brilliant, and beautiful film.
Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr. lives in an apartment in White Plains, New York. He is an elderly Black veteran with bipolar disorder. As such, he also wears a LifeAlert monitor. One November morning, he wakes early, takes off the LifeAlert monitor, and goes back to sleep. The sleep-ridden act of removing the monitor causes it to go off, and three police officers troop to his apartment at 5 in the morning to check on him. An hour later, Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr., just like the title explains, is dead.
The film expands upon the real-life testimony and records to tell the story of what probably happened in that hour. Told in real time, the film is therefore an 83-minute tragedy that plays out despite one officer (Enrico Natale) feeling unease at breaking into Chamberlain’s home after he denies the police entry, others who live in the apartment building trying to help, and the woman at the LifeAlert office doing everything she can to get the police officers to leave Mr. Chamberlain alone.
Frankie Faison plays Chamberlain with poignancy and grace. Even as the police repeatedly refuse to leave, he reassures himself and his family while asserting himself to the officers multiple times that he is fine and doesn’t need any help. At the same time, however, he doesn’t want anyone else in his apartment, and though the officers say they will be quick with the wellness check, he doesn’t trust them. This is outstanding work from Faison. Another actor to watch is Enrico Natale, who plays Officer Rossi. He’s the rookie on the force and takes the most quiet, careful approach to dealing with Chamberlain. Unlike the other clearly racist, angry officers with him, Rossi wants to help Chamberlain no matter what. Unfortunately, he is not successful.
The film is set up quite like a play, since it only takes place in two locations: on one side and the other of an apartment door. However, the modern setting and the fact that the event really happened help keep the narrative realistic. The sound editing and effects are especially well done, emphasizing how the police continuously interfere in Chamberlain’s life as their knocks on his door wreck havoc with his hearing aids. The film ends with real life recordings of what actually happened the morning of November 19, 2011.
Though the film overall is a triumph, it’s unbelievable that after so much time and with so many people wanting to help Kenneth Chamberlain, all everyone is left with is a tragedy – one that continues into the present day.
The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain
dir. David Midell
Now streaming on HBO Max
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