A sad air of inevitability hangs over the opening stretch of The Blood Is At The Doorstep. For Milwaukeeans, the story is distressingly familiar: On the afternoon of April 30, 2014, Dontre Hamilton, a 31-year-old black man coping with paranoid schizophrenia, was shot and killed by a white police officer, Christopher Manney, in Red Arrow Park. A scuffle had broken out between the two men, and Hamilton, who was unarmed but had gained control of Manney’s baton, was shot 14 times. Outrage and protests followed, with Hamilton’s family becoming public figures—demanding answers, change, and justice—in a greater movement nationwide.
It’s tempting to think that Milwaukee has heard all there is to hear about this story. But one of the many remarkable things about director Erik Ljung’s essential documentary (premiering tonight at the Milwaukee Film Festival) is how it destroys so many misconceptions about Dontre Hamilton and the events that followed his death. Contrary to initial press conferences and persistent untruths, Hamilton was not homeless (he was carrying keys to his home at the time of his death), was not an “armed robber” (Dontre’s older brother, Nate, discusses his past robbery charges), and was not uncared for by his family. A heartbreaking early scene shows Dontre’s brothers listening to a voicemail that their mother, Maria, left Dontre at roughly the same time he was killed.
Another remarkable thing about the film is its intimacy. Over the course of three years, Ljung is a fly on the wall as Maria meets with fellow mothers of murdered sons. He’s there as the family collects and heals itself over meals and get-togethers. He’s there at the marches, there at the protests, there at City Hall, there at the beginning, and there as the story continues past the final credits. Red tape occasionally gives way to small victories (Mayor Barrett announcing that Milwaukee police officers will be required to take a 40-hour crisis intervention course). Frustration occasionally makes way for hope. The fight for justice stretches off into the horizon.
The film isn’t entirely told from the Hamilton family’s point of view, however. Most notably, a candid and oft-frustrated Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn is interviewed here, claiming Hamilton’s death only became about race after the unrest in Ferguson a few months later (up until that point, he says, all parties agreed it was a “mental health issue”). He also claims that Milwaukee’s status as the only Wisconsin city that extensively handles homicides made it impossible to call in outside investigators in the shooting’s aftermath. The Milwaukee Police Association, following Flynn’s decision to fire Manney, casts a “no-confidence” vote on their chief and stresses that Hamilton’s own actions were to blame for his death.
It’s a knotty, sad, and occasionally infuriating film. And it should be. In the end, however, the Hamilton family emerges with the loudest voice, and rightfully so. The Blood Is At The Doorstep is about larger issues—systemic racism, policing, police brutality, Black Lives Matter, Ferguson, and the Sherman Park unrest that bookends the film—but it is above all a portrait of a family that has lost a son, a brother, a friend. The film opens with a quote from James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Facing those problems together—as a family or as a human race—is essential.
Tonight’s premiere of The Blood Is At The Doorstep is sold out. Additional screenings and ticket links can be found here.