Joining Peter Nicks’ “The Force” in the emerging sub-genre of “documentaries about police reform that illustrate the utter futility of reforming the police,” Deirdre Fishel’s “Women in Blue” takes viewers deep inside the Minneapolis Police Department during the tumultuous years leading up to the murder of George Floyd. Like Nicks, Fishel was drawn to her subject because of the hope represented by a progressive chief of police; in this case Janée Harteau, the first woman to head the MPD in its long history (and an openly gay Native American woman at that).
Unlike Nicks, however, Fishel embeds herself behind the blue wall of silence with a particular hypothesis — female leadership might help detoxify the culture of violence that churns inside America’s police departments — and the sheer whiteness of that approach blinds her to a fact that would’ve become even more obvious had she just kept filming for a few months longer: No transfusion of new blood could hope to save a body so poisoned to its core.
The well-intentioned and wincingly naive work of a white filmmaker who recognizes the need for change but fails to comprehend the full extent of the problem, “Women in Blue” is most valuable as yet another reminder that defunding the police isn’t a radical position so much as it’s the only feasible way forward; it’s the difference between moving deck chairs around the Titanic and building a safer boat. And while Fishel convincingly illustrates how sexism has compounded the systemic racial biases that plague our police departments, her film isn’t able to read the writing on the wall — it isn’t able to appreciate how little “good cops” can do to reverse the rot, or that a “nice” American police force still murders a far greater number of innocent people than a non-existent American police force.
Had “Women in Blue” pivoted away from its initial premise once Fishel saw how ill-equipped an armed police officer is to respond to a teenage girl’s suicide attempt (to cite one of the queasier interactions she recorded), her documentary might have better anticipated the recent vote to replace the MPD with a community-led public safety system. But Fishel’s nuanced and empathetic portraits of female police officers are baked into a film that see-saws between violence and reform like it’s actually possible for the system to achieve balance.
Perhaps a laser-focused look at the ups and downs of Harteau’s administration would have been more illuminating. Harteau — who granted Fishel full access to the MPD towards the end of her tenure — is a fascinating character who did what she could to sugarcoat a dehumanizing shitshow. She was personable and relatively open to the press throughout her tenure, and strove to end the harassment that female officers had suffered at the hands of their male counterparts. When two of her officers murdered a 24-year-old Black man named Jamar Clark in 2015, Harteau allowed protestors to set up a semi-permanent camp around the department’s 4th precinct (at least until she kicked the protestors out at 4:00 a.m. one morning with 10 minutes’ notice, and arrested those who refused to leave). Of course, she wasn’t forced to resign until a Black cop murdered a white woman named Justine Damond in 2017, and her sudden departure 22 minutes into Fishel’s movie seems to leave the director with less of the access she’d been granted at the start.
Buoyed by Chad Cannon’s lush and powerful score, “Women in Blue” is at its best when it highlights the efforts of Harteau’s former hires to continue her legacy. One of six Black women in the entire Minneapolis Police Department, Officer Alice White is worth a film of her own. She’s a strong and compelling person who sets the tone for her troops, but she’s also embarrassed at being a cop: she tells people that she “works for the city.” It’s unclear if she’s afraid of being thought of as a traitor — “Jamar Clark’s murder was the first time that I felt I really needed to choose a side between Black or blue,” she says, though Fishel’s verité style means she doesn’t push the officer to explore that choice with more depth — but one clue comes from the quietly devastating moment in which her daughter announces that “everyone at school thinks you can shoot and tase whoever you want whenever you want.”
Rather than explore how that assessment might have sat with White over the years, “Women in Blue” further embraces the plurality of its title by extending its reach to a 24-year-old rookie named Erin Grabosky (who has a poster of the rabbit cop from “Zootopia” in her locker), and Commander Melissa Chiodo, who runs the Special Crimes division with an empathy unlike any the department had seen before (i.e. she arrests the men who solicit sex, and not the sex workers themselves). These iron-willed women try to exert a positive influence in the MPD despite the palpable waves of misogyny that come their way — Chiodo’s slouched underlings are like walking parodies of male insecurity — and the resistance that comes from Harteau’s successor, who displays a pattern of discrimination when it comes to hiring and promoting women.
Suddenly on the outside looking in, Fishel’s documentary assumes a more passive voice as it tries to detail why its subjects aren’t having a more transformational effect on the MPD. The film hops between Grabovsky, White, Chiodo, and new police chief Medaria Arradondo in an increasingly restless search for a solution to a problem that Fishel lacks the scope to see clearly. “Women in Blue” cites a number of statistics regarding the racial biases of Minneapolis policing, and makes time for a subplot about how Damond’s murderer became the city’s first officer to be convicted of killing a civilian in decades, but it’s as if the film is waiting for an event to galvanize it — something that might arrange its constellation of injustices into a more coherent shape. The hurting Black protestors we hear from can already see it with the clarity they inherited like a blood-stained heirloom, but Fishel seems to be stuck on Harteau’s insistence that “Policing is different in the 21st Century.” She can’t quite realize the danger of trying to make it seem that way.
Still, it’s worth noting that “Women in Blue” is being screened at AFI Docs as a work-in-progress, and a coda that takes recent events into account (and synthesizes their meaning into the rest of the film) could theoretically make this a much richer film about people bumping up against the futility of police reform. And when the community-led public safety model emerges from the ash heap of the MPD, Fishel’s doc will serve as a valuable reminder that women should be represented in leadership roles from the start.
“Women in Blue” premiered as part of the 2020 AFI Docs Film Festival, a virtual festival that will run from June 17 — June 21.