The new documentary premieres May 25 at the Central Library.
The case of Madison resident Tony Robinson, who died in March 2015 after Madison Police Department Officer Matt Kenny shot him multiple times in a Willy Street apartment, deserves a thorough and independent re-investigation. One that questions the official explanation of the shooting while offering rich context about police killings of unarmed people of color, the use of cops as de facto crisis-care providers for the mentally ill, Madison’s racial and social inequities, institutional racism, weak media oversight, and of course the laws and rules governing law enforcement officers’ use of deadly force.
The new documentary 19, The Tony Robinson Shooting, A Case Of Deadly Bias, premiering Wednesday night at the Central Library, makes a scrappy attempt at the re-investigation part and offers a corrective to the prevailing media narrative about the shooting. But when it comes to context and analysis, 19 falls frustratingly short.
Director Tim Poehlmann-Tynan makes a convincing case that Kenny did not follow proper procedure when he entered Robinson’s apartment by himself without identifying himself as a police officer, and that Kenny had a prior record of inappropriately escalating violent situations. But despite its subtitle, the documentary addresses police officers’ racial bias in only a general way (and you’d be hard-pressed to argue that racial bias isn’t a factor in police behavior), offering no insight into how racial bias influenced this particular tragedy. It’s a film very much in line with your lesser Act 10 protest documentaries—it’s noble and committed, but it doesn’t take the time to fully articulate all the points it wants to make (especially given its one-hour runtime), and ends up feeling like a messy first draft of a complex story.
Poehlmann-Tynan frames the film with an examination of media coverage of the shooting. He says in the film that he analyzed 100 different news stories about it, though it’s not clear how varied his sources were—the main examples he shows come from CNN, local TV affiliates, and those weird animate-the-news content-farm videos. It definitely matters that TV coverage relied so heavily on MPD’s version of the story—and MPD Chief Mike Koval’s assertion that Robinson and Kenny were in “mutual combat at the time of the shooting”—and that they portrayed Robinson in a demeaning way, but cable and local-TV are generally the crappiest news outlets and the ones most credulous of official sources. Did other news outlets bring nuance to the story, or did they reinforce the flawed reporting of the TV outlets? I’m not disputing that the poor and people of color are ill-served by most media outlets, but the film could be way more thorough in reflecting the complexity of web, print, and broadcast media.
For instance, The Guardian, a left-leaning but essentially mainstream outlet, was on the story pretty quickly, with coverage that didn’t exactly put the cops in a flattering light. One of The Guardian’s first pieces of coverage, in fact, was a video about the harrowing experience Tony Robinson’s family had at the UW Hospital after his death—something 19 spends a lot of time examining as well. Poehlmann-Tynan is right to say in his narration that many news outlets relied on a “shortcut narrative” that emphasized Kenny’s supposed heroism and (shamefully, in my view) over-emphasized reports that Robinson was on drugs that night, but people have access to many news sources that aren’t local TV affiliates or the Wisconsin State Journal.
There are several moments where just a little more follow-through would make 19 much more powerful. The film points out that media reports tended to ignore the first 911 call placed about Robinson the night of his death, but does not go on to explain why that matters. It compares and contrasts some of the words used to describe Robinson and Kenny, but could give us some idea of, say, the relative frequency of these words in order to drive home the point.
In the film’s most wrenching section, Robinson’s mother and relatives, and an anonymous hospital worker, describe how police officers barred family members from going in to see Robinson’s body at UW Hospital. Officers apparently cited the need to process Robinson’s body as evidence, and according to the film were incredibly callous to the family. But here’s another opportunity to dig just a bit deeper, and the film doesn’t take it. Why was the family treated this way during an unimaginably traumatic moment? If that’s standard procedure, the film needs to ask why. If that’s not standard procedure, why was Tony Robinson’s family treated differently? Again, the film certainly does enough to convince us that the powers that be have grievously mistreated Tony Robinson and his family, but doesn’t help us understand what’s behind all this.
Near the end of 19, I watched with mounting incredulity as Poehlmann-Tynan used clips from movies like Dirty Harry, Lethal Weapon, Another 48 Hours, and Jack Reacher to illustrate his points about how officers are supposed to use force and how we mythologize police violence. It would have been far more illuminating to have a short interview with an independent expert on the subject—perhaps a lawyer who’s worked a lot of cases involving police brutality. The film is pretty thorough about talking with Robinson’s friends and relatives to help us understand Robinson as a generous, loving, playful human being, but when it’s time to delve into the bigger issues, the sourcing becomes shockingly thin.
At its beginning, the film doesn’t offer much basic framing for people who might not be familiar with the Tony Robinson shooting—you’re just sort of dropped into it, with the assumption that you’ll piece together the background facts as you go, or that you already know them. At its end, 19 offers an alternate narrative of Robinson’s death, but offers very little as far as possible solutions, or at least the bigger issues we need to be talking about. It’s already clear that this young man shouldn’t have died, but where do we go from here?
If 19 gets just a few people talking about how police use deadly force and how the media covers race, it will have done some good. But it’s going to have trouble reaching people who aren’t already taking part in these conversations.