One of the many urgent reasons that the police need to be defunded in this country is that they have no interest in being reformed (the difference between the two is nuanced but crucial, as previous documentaries have done well to explain). Whenever someone besmirches the blue shield, that person has to go down. They have a target on their back whether they’re a politician, a protestor, or even one of their own.
Especially if they’re one of their own. The wall of silence is a sacred thing in their ranks — the first line of defense in the holy war against accountability — and woe to anyone brave enough to speak out about what happens behind it. It doesn’t matter if they’re gifting the police a golden opportunity to see their self-inflicted blind spots and improve their public image. Judging by Ilinca Calugareanu’s “A Cops and Robbers Story,” the NYPD wouldn’t know a good PR move if it shot them in the back.
A scattershot but compelling documentary about a scattershot but compelling man, Calugareanu’s follow-up to “Chuck Norris vs Communism” introduces us to retired NYPD Commander Corey Pegues, whose biography should be a testament to what’s possible in this country, and not a shameful illustration of why so many American lives don’t get the second acts they deserve. The long and short of it is that Pegues grew up on the mean streets of South Queens during the crack boom of the 1980s, and found himself slinging rock on the corner outside of the neighborhood bodega by the time he was a teenager.
But that was never really his scene. Raised in a family of strong women who nicknamed him “Booby” and gave him shit whenever he tried to deny his inner softness, Pegues just did what he had to do in order to survive. That meant acting hard, joining up with the Supreme Team — the notorious gang that ran the neighborhood drug trade at the time — and ultimately risking his freedom for a little street cred after some other hood muscled him off his spot. Pegues went to kill the guy, but he didn’t know how to rack the slide of his stolen pistol, and the gun jammed. Twice.
So he ran. First he ran off the block, and when he got to the end of the street he just kept running until he found himself in the military. By the time he made his way back to Queens a few years later, he wasn’t running from the police; he was wearing their uniform.
But none of Pegues’ fellow officers knew how strange it must have been for him to put on the blue every morning, and throughout his illustrious 21 years of public service, Pegues never told them. He kept his criminal past secret, as he had every right to do. He put his head down, rose up the ranks in spite of undisguised racism at every turn, and used his personal experience to help make policing more humane.
To judge by Calugareanu’s film, which runs 77 minutes without credits and doesn’t leave enough room for the nuance this story needs, Pegues never abused his power. The guy is a noble character, but he might be the first to admit that cops — even retired ones who shared their life stories after leaving the force and made enemies of their former colleagues in the process — have a greater burden of proof these days, and that onus extends to any filmmakers who strive to paint them in a positive light.
Always engaging in broad strokes thanks to the remarkable biography of its subject, “A Cops and Robbers Story” is at its best in the brief moments when it drills down on the particulars of Pegues’ experience on either side of the law. One of the opening scenes consists of amateur video footage from Pegues’ early days on the force, and while the locker-room snippet promises a wealth of first-hand evidence that never comes to fruition, the short clip is enough to crystallize the prejudice he received from other policemen. As colorful talking head testimony from Pegues’ former colleagues confirms, the white and sweaty bridge-and-tunnel guys he worked with didn’t know what to make of a Black cop who wore a durag under his cap and walked with a “bebop limp.” They thought he was stupid. They called him the n-word. They gave him garbage assignments that no one else wanted. As one ex-cop phrases it in the most loaded of terms: “He was too representative of his minority community.”
Pegues couldn’t change his stripes, but he wasn’t in a position to push back — he was too afraid of being found out. One of the film’s more effusive passages finds its subject recounting the day when, having been promoted to an instructor, he showed a training video about local crime to a class of rookie cops. His heart skipped a beat when his old friends started appearing on screen, and Pegues started to panic that someone might see him in the background. His residual fear remains palpable, and we can understand how frustrating it must have been to feel like he couldn’t discuss a part of his life that civilians would understand as the first act of an inspirational trajectory (even Pegues’ childhood friends are proud of him to some degree, which is all the more affecting given that some of them never managed to get out of the game). And yet even with all we’ve come to know about police culture, it’s still jarring to see the world of shit that Pegues stepped into when he finally spoke his truth.
Calugareanu is broadly able to convey the extent of the NYPD’s response — the anger, the misplaced feelings of betrayal, the refusal to learn from Pegues’ empathic approach to policework — but “A Cops and Robbers Story” is so eager to get to the part where Pegues starts promoting his book that it skitters over how it felt to have his decades of suspicions come true as the system crashed down around him. Some local news footage and a belligerent letter from the police union fail to provide sufficient dimension for the danger that Pegues invited upon himself, and Calugareanu seems uninterested in probing him for how the NYPD’s response may have complicated his thoughts on the corrupt law enforcement agency that gave him a lifeline when he needed it most.
That Pegues’ daughter became a cop is only mentioned in passing at the very end of the film, as is his mantra that he “loves police, but just hates bad police.” The agonized inner conflict that shapes his perspective is worthy of a documentary of its own, but “A Cops and Robbers Story” remains on the outside looking in. The dramatizations that Calugareanu uses to bring Pegues’ teen years to life are erratic, and even stranger for how strong, vivid, and well-acted they are — think Sundance breakthrough, not The History Channel. Perhaps if she had taken the same approach to Pegues’ adult years, her film would have amounted to something more honest than just a good story well told. But it’s also a story that the NYPD doesn’t want you to see, and at the end of the day that’s enough to make it worth watching.
“A Cops and Robbers Story” premiered at DOC NYC 2020. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.