The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain never quite reaches its true potential, despite a powerful central performance and a painfully relevant story.
Every now and then, a film comes along that has all the right ingredients to be something great but sadly just doesn’t click. The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain, despite its timely premise and clear talent behind the screen, suffers from exactly that. There’s nothing innately wrong with the film, it just doesn’t provide the intensity or emotional payoffs that are required to pull off this sort of story, particularly when being told in real time. Instead, we’re left with what can only be described as the shell of something great – a powerful performance, effective camerawork and lots of scathingly honest social commentary, but no narrative engagement or fresh ideas to keep the film interesting throughout.
The film chronicles the events that lead up to the untimely murder of Kenneth Chamberlain, an elderly black man suffering from dementia, at the hands of three white police officers who were dispatched to his home following a medical alert. Despite Kenneth’s claims that everything is fine, the officers become increasingly suspicious that Kenneth is hiding something in his apartment and, for the next hour and a half, attempt to gain entry despite their lack of permission or warrant. For the most part, the film does a good job of introducing us to Kenneth’s world, keeping us continually focused on his character as we learn more about him, his condition, and how this unfortunate situation arose in the first place. We gain a great amount of sympathy for Kenneth, and it quickly becomes clear that we’re witnessing the brutal exploitation of this man’s physical and mental health by these police officers in an attempt to bully him into submission – which makes a very fitting metaphor for the police brutality crisis in America. Sadly, it doesn’t often go much further than just the facts, failing to offer any sort of insight into the crisis past a one-noted condemnation, which leads to a somewhat unexciting viewing experience.
The main problem with The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain’s script is that it’s extremely repetitive. We’re seeing the same conflict play out in multiple different ways, and it always ends with the police officers attempting to enter Kenneth’s home to no avail – until the film’s admittedly staggering final sequence. This is really the only time that the film takes any sort of control of its story, rather than relying on the same conflict and resolution to drive its narrative forward. It’s difficult to totally engage with a story when it’s so monotone at times, and it becomes even more difficult to connect with the characters when the story becomes this incredibly predictable. If it wasn’t for Frankie Faison’s captivating performance as Kenneth Chamberlain, it’s hard to imagine being able to connect to this story at all. The performances from the rest of the cast are nothing remarkable, with the police officers often feeling like nothing more than walking stereotypes that act only to serve as catalysts for the film’s central conflict. Luckily Faison is great, and through Kenneth he manages to perfectly embody generations of black trauma and oppression without it ever feeling exploitative or artificial. He’s fantastic, and he’s the glue that holds the film together.
The film adopts a shaky handheld camera approach to its story, which is admittedly very effective in creating the impression that we’re really there with Kenneth and his future killers, and building suspense in moments of action – but it’s also extremely distracting at times, and often draws away from the emotional impact of these scenes. Part of this decision almost certainly came from budget concerns, so it’s understandable and commendable that this choice was made under these restrictions, it just doesn’t always work as it was likely intended to. The technical aspects of the film are extremely conflicting: one the one hand, the low-budget style and natural lighting makes this situation feel a lot more real, and less like a constructed narrative, but on the other hand it can often just appear careless and unimpressive. Perhaps some sort of cinematic distinction would make the film a little more engaging and intense, and perhaps even bring that lackluster script to life.
The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain is an extremely important story told in an astoundingly average way. There are plenty of ideas there – generational racism, police brutality, exploitation of power – but they never come together into anything that’s likely to leave a lasting impression. It’s undoubtedly a good thing that these films are getting made, if only for the awareness and understanding that the story is bound to bring, but I couldn’t help feeling that this just wasn’t the right medium for it – which leaves it often feeling like a great short film that’s been stretched to feature length.
The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain will be released on HBO Max on November 19, 2021.