They’re suited up in kevlar. Their bulletproof helmets snap tightly at the chin. A lieutenant gives assignments: “Active Shooter,” “Drug Raid.”
But we’re not about to see seasoned law enforcement professionals enter harm’s way. These are high school kids being directed into simulations of high-stress policing situations as part of Horizon High School’s Law Enforcement Club. The school, located 10 miles east of El Paso, is one of 900 Texas high schools that now offer police training as a vocational track. As captured on camera by journalist and documentarian Maisie Crow, these teenagers, nearing graduation and hoping to enter law enforcement, anchor one of the most compelling journalistic accounts of America’s culture of policing. “At the Ready” is Sundance 2021’s “Boys State” — another documentary about how a particular group of kids reveal larger truths about the entire nation — except it’s better.
Better because “Boys State,” despite its seeming representation of America’s divides as enacted by a group of student legislators, was a much more artificial construct. In that film, kids from all over Texas convened to form a mock state government. There was a performative nature to some of the kids’ antics. And very few of the participants actually wanted to pursue politics as a career. In “At the Ready,” the kids of Horizon, Texas, are actually planning for lives in law enforcement. What happens in high school will actually shape the direction of their careers.
The fact that Horizon’s student body is largely Latinx adds a complicating facet, since many of these kids, usually Mexican-American, and some even with families living across the border in Ciudad Juarez, are training to be Border Patrol officers. Why would they train for jobs that target people that share their background? Because those jobs are lucrative. The Border Patrol offers as high-paying a career track as teenagers without college aspirations could hope for in El Paso and its vicinity. Within five years, each officer could be making around $100,000. And participating in a club like the one at Horizon High School could mean being fast-tracked into one of those positions.
Crow makes no judgments about what’s happening here. These kids are being indoctrinated in policing as not just a career but as a way of life with a politics, culture, and symbols. One of their mentors, a retired police officer of Mexican-American heritage, proudly states he’s voting for Ted Cruz in the 2018 Texas Senate Race. A Blue Lives Matter flag hangs on the wall of the club’s classroom and appears on students’ kevlar vests. But Crow never editorializes, choosing to have her eight camera operators adopt a fly-on-the-wall posture, telephoto lenses trained on tight close-ups of the students while the filmmakers are clearly keeping their distance. The contradictions need no underlining. They’re too obvious for everyone to see.
Three students in the law enforcement club become Crow’s primary focus, all Mexican-American: Cristina, whose father supports her efforts largely because she’ll have a good-paying career; Cesar, whose father has been deported and is living in Juarez; and Mason (known as Kassy in the film before coming out as trans). Each of them has a compelling journey, with Cristina and Mason being able to reconcile their heritage, their hatred of Trump, and their support of Beto O’Rourke in that 2018 race (which comes to dominate the film like the 1934 California Governor’s race in “Mank”), with their desire to make law enforcement their living. Maybe they can be the change they want to see from within? In their class, they discuss how Border Patrol officers can do a lot more than just arrest people, such as rescuing stranded migrants who get stuck in the desert on their crossing.
But these kids simply see law enforcement as a “cool” job. Watching them carry their plastic orange replicas of guns, held protectively near their chests in a pensive stance as they prep for a mock “Active Shooter” drill they’ll perform at an inter-high school law enforcement competition, they never seem more like kids simply playing. Except this play is training them for situations where they could lose their lives, or take other people’s. For Mason, there’s no contradiction between supporting Black Lives Matter and participating in a club with Blue Lives Matter symbols. To Cristina, Border Patrol is clearly different from ICE, since she’ll be working just on the border, whereas ICE operates in the interior of the country to actively raid and arrest the unsuspecting undocumented; to her, one is good, one is bad. Cesar, on the other hand, journeying frequently to see his exiled father in Juarez, begins to perceive what so many in the Mexican-American community see in the law enforcement along the border.
Crow, a native Texan, moved from New York City to her home state after the 2016 election in an attempt to learn more about the changes shaping the country. Before this film, her 2018 documentary “Jackson,” about the last abortion clinic in Mississippi, also won acclaim. She’s now the editor-in-chief of The Big Bend Sentinel, a weekly newspaper in Marfa. Watching “At the Ready,” a rich piece of journalism as well as an expertly assembled documentary, you think you’re watching what could have a riveting feature story in print. Instead, it’s a Pulitzer-worthy cover story in cinematic form.
“At the Ready” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Documentary Competition section. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.