For the Milwaukee Film Festival premiere of The Blood is at the Doorstep, part of a 15-day event featuring the work of national and international independent filmmakers, there were no empty seats.
Dontre Hamilton likely couldn’t have conceived of an evening where a film about his short life would find itself in the stately and ornate surroundings of the Oriental, one of Milwaukee’s oldest cinemas. On April 30, 2014, Hamilton was sleeping outside in downtown Milwaukee at Red Arrow Park, a small area surrounded by a Starbucks, glass office towers and the city’s performing arts center.
Two sets of police officers found Dontre Hamilton sleeping that afternoon after a Starbucks employee called to complain of a seemingly homeless man sleeping. Those officers instructed the unnamed employee to stop calling because they saw no crime. A third police officer, Christopher Manney, answered a subsequent call. Manney and Hamilton scuffled, and Manney shot Hamilton 14 times. Maria Hamilton was notified of her son’s death several hours later when detectives questioned her for 45 minutes in a police car outside her home.
The Blood is at the Doorstep is another offering in a series of recent films that capture the stories of victims’ families and their activism that emerged in the wake of high-profile deaths of unarmed black people. It is a multifaceted, comprehensive, smart human story of a small city’s reckoning with its particular connection to the national movement for black lives. The film, which had been largely supported by local funders and contributions from Milwaukee’s thriving film community, finally had its homecoming in October, after debuting at SXSW in March. After a year of screenings at film festivals, the film is shopping for national distribution and release.
Over a three-year period, Milwaukee-based filmmaker Erik Ljung embedded himself with the family of Dontre Hamilton to produce The Blood is at the Doorstep, which follows them as they witness their intimate struggles and public confrontations with police and local governing bodies while pressing for truth and accountability surrounding Dontre’s death. The film is an honest and complex rendering of the lives of police violence victims, who wrestled with their grief and transformed into activists as well as a sensitive examination of perceptions of mental health.
The Blood is at the Doorstep opens with harrowing scenes from Milwaukee’s August 2016 riots in the wake of the shooting death of Sylville Smith in Sherman Park, two years after Dontre Hamilton’s death. The year Dontre was killed, 2014, was the national tipping point for the breadth of public awareness of the epidemic of police shootings of unarmed civilians, a disproportionate number of whom were black, under circumstances that left families reeling for answers. From there, the film pivots to the lives of Dontre’s mother and brother — Maria Hamilton and Nate Hamilton Jr. — whose quiet lives were upended in pursuing answers and accountability for Dontre’s death.
The film dispels dominant narratives about Hamilton and his fatal encounter with former Milwaukee police officer Christopher Manney. Hamilton, who lived with schizophrenia, was described in initial reports as an unidentified homeless man. That story shaped the public perception of Hamilton, casting him as the primary actor responsible for his own death.
In a later scene, that narrative contrasts with the Hamilton brothers reviewing the personal effects of their deceased brother, which included a rent receipt, apartment keys and an ID. For Hamilton’s family, the struggle with the police department and its chief Edward Flynn, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, District Attorney John Chisholm, and the fire and safety commission became a vigorous restoration of Dontre’s dignity and memory.
The film is delicate in its handling of the conversations around mental illness, as well as the family’s reckoning and learning of the scope of Hamilton’s illness. However, as the film unfolds, it becomes clear that mental illness does not bear the sole responsibility for Dontre Hamilton’s death.
“When someone gets killed by a police officer it’s a foot race to get the story out,” Michael Bell Sr. tells Ljung in the film. Bell is the father of the late Michael Bell, who in 2004 was gunned down by a Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer outside of his family home. After years of advocacy, from buying billboard ads and lobbying state and local officials, Bell helped usher a Wisconsin state law requiring independent investigations of police-involved shootings of unarmed civilians.
Known as the Bell law, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed the bill into law just days before Dontre Hamilton’s death. The Hamilton case was one of the first cases to fall under the new law, and ultimately, tested the limits of its efficacy. Manney was fired by Flynn in October 2014 after an internal investigation of the shooting. In December 2014, Milwaukee County district attorney declined to press criminal charges against Manney based on his review of the independent investigation report.
Tedious and anxious, the family contends with setbacks and disappointments with the process and conclusion of the independent investigation. Their efforts then bifurcate between direct nonviolent civil actions and lobbying oversight boards that determine Manney’s petition for reinstatement. Embedded in all of these ups and downs, we see an honest appraisal of the struggles of sustaining local pressure and activism where tempers and tensions flare between the family and local activists.
“Once Ferguson burned, it became a race issue,” Flynn, Milwaukee’s police chief, reflects later in the film. It is here where the film complicates Flynn, who in 2015 testified to the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and has been critical of Wisconsin’s gun laws. (Flynn volunteered the Milwaukee Police Department to be reviewed by the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services).
Throughout the film, Flynn is steadfast in maintaining that Hamilton’s death “doesn’t fit the narrative” of similar cases nationwide that were fueling the groundswell of Black Lives Matter activism for policing reform. Flynn ignores the recent deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of law enforcement that loom large in the memories of black community — one in 2011, two in 2012. The more convenient narrative for Flynn centers on police training and mental health and one that ignores race. Yet, as tensions rise between the Hamilton family and the police union, Flynn becomes a more complicated figure, impatient at moments, irritated in others, as the tide of the Hamilton case shifted to highlight Milwaukee’s working-class black communities’ historically fraught relationship with law enforcement and their real grievances with the police. Milwaukee is Wisconsin’s largest city; 40% of the city’s population is black, and it is one of the most segregated cities in the U.S.
For Milwaukee audiences, the film is an emotional journey for viewers who had witnessed many of these events in real time, frustrated by the inadequacies of the justice system. The Blood is at the Doorstep saves its most crushing blow to the end. In September, the Trump administration announced the end of the Department of Justice’s Collaborative Reform Initiative under the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. After 22 months of review, the official findings from the review of the Milwaukee Police Department will never be released to the public, but Flynn has “embraced the recommendations” of the draft report, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
The Blood is at the Doorstep honestly captures the nuances of this detente between the movement for black lives and policing reform. Nearer to the film’s conclusion, this detente crystallizes for viewers when activists canvas the Bay View neighborhood (a historically white ethnic neighborhood) and home to District Attorney Chisholm. There, just beyond the front door of Chisholm’s home, the activists sing a rendition of “Silent Night” as they face a wall of police officers. Yet, Nate Hamilton Jr. is silent; he is stone-faced, his eyes glare and glint, holding back tears. His torment is palpable, as well as his fierce resolve in the pursuit of justice and accountability for the city’s role in the premature death of his older brother Dontre.
As they reach the song’s final lyric, each of them, no more than 20, slowly lay in the street symbolizing the black men and women who have died due to police violence, and falling silent as the police look on. It is only Nate’s voice that breaks the tense silence, with a clarion call and warning, “The blood is at the doorstep. The blood is at the doorstep.”