MILWAUKEE – Standing on the stage at the Oriental Theatre at the Milwaukee Film Festival Friday night with the rest of his family, Dameion Perkins remembered something his brother, Dontre Hamilton, once said to him.
“He said one day that he would put us in a position to have his name shine in the lights,” Perkins said.
That prediction came true, but not in a way that anyone in the family would have wished for. Eric Ljung’s searing documentary “The Blood is at the Doorstep,” looks at the Hamilton’s family’s quest for justice after Dontre Hamilton was fatally shot 14 times by a Milwaukee police officer in 2014.
Ljung’s film about the controversial case first premiered in April to strong reviews at the South by Southwest Film Festival, and has played in several other festivals and screenings since.
But Ljung said Friday’s screening, bringing Milwaukee’s story home to Milwaukee, was the most important one for him. He said he and his crew have been tweaking and editing the film over the last six months, still making changes up until last Monday, and called Friday’s screening the premiere of the “final cut.” He felt like a weight had finally lifted off his shoulders.
“I put my heart and soul into this film,” Ljung said. “This is the only thing I’ve talked or thought about for the last three years.”
Hamilton was shot and killed by police officer Christopher Manney in a public downtown park in 2014. Manney was later fired by Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn for not following proper protocol in a way that escalated the situation but state and federal prosecutors said there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute Manney with a crime. In May, the Milwaukee Common Council approved a $2.3 million settlement for Dontre Hamilton's young son.
The film follows the Hamilton family’s long journey for justice, played out as increased attention was being paid to other police-involved shootings of unarmed African-American men around the country (including Tony Robinson in Madison). The film reveals tensions not just between African-Americans and Milwaukee police, but between Flynn and rank-and-file officers, between Mayor Tom Barrett and police, and even within the protesters as they argue strategy.
While the film is a Milwaukee story, Ljung said it connected with every community he screened it in.
Ljung’s film began life as a short documentary that ran on the New York Times’ website, and continued to grow and grow.
During a post-show Q&A, Milwaukee Public Radio reporter Aisha Turner asked Ljung if, as a white man, he felt any trepidation about telling the story of an African-American family. Definitely, Ljung said, but said it was a story that somebody needed to tell.
“This was a story that wasn’t getting told,” he said. “I did the best I could to cover my blindspots. I asked a lot of questions, and didn’t try to interject my opinions into the film. I just wanted to let the family tell their story.”
Ljung developed a close connection with the family, which was illustrated when Nate Hamilton, Dontre’s older brother, presented him with a denim jacket matching the ones that the family members wore in honor of Dontre and other victims of police shootings.
“Blood is at the Doorstep” will screen again at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Oriental Theatre and 8:45 p.m. Tuesday at the Times Cinema. The Milwaukee Film Festival runs through Thursday at several theaters around the city.
The film has been picked up for distribution by FilmBuff and Ljung said it will get a limited theatrical release in 2018. He hopes that it will move audiences to take a more active role in combating the racial issues in their communities. As James Baldwin said in the quote that opens the film, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Maria Hamilton, Dontre’s mother, has started an organization called Mothers for Justice United to take action. She told the sold-out audience, full of family and friends, that she was grateful for the audience’s support over the last few years.
“It’s a people movie,” she said. “This belongs to you.”
The Black Lens series has been a staple of the festival experience for years, bringing the African-American experience to the big screen with a diverse mix of documentaries, features and classic films.
In addition to “Doorstep,” the documentary “For Akheem” screened Friday morning at the Oriental Theatre. The film drops the audience right in the middle of the life of 17-year-old Daje “Boonie” Shelton, a North St. Louis teen assigned to attend an alternative charter school after she’s expelled from her regular school for fighting.
For two years, we spent time with Boonie as she struggles to graduate high school which facing a mountain of obstacles (a mountain that grows much larger as the film progresses), despite the presence of a strong mother and caring teachers and counselors at school.
In some ways, Boonie’s experience is like any other teen – fooling around, falling in love, struggling to pass finals. But in other ways it’s very different; there’s no room for youthful mistakes in her life, no room for error, and the stakes of even an algebra final can have enormous ripple effects on her life.
Filmmakers Landon Van Soest and Jeremy Levine add no voiceover narration or onscreen titles to play Boonie’s story in a larger context of the social and economic hardships facing inner-city teens. But we feel them acutely, especially when the protests over the shooting of Michael Brown erupt just a few miles away in Ferguson. In that context, for Boonie to achieve the goals that every teen sets for herself become an act of heroism.