The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain tells the true story of an elderly African-American man in Westchester County, New York, who accidentally triggered his medical alert life pendant in the middle of the night on November 19th, 2011. An hour and a half later, he had been killed at the hands of the police who had been dispatched to assist him.
White Plains Officers refused to leave Chamberlain’s apartment until he opened the door to them, despite Chamberlain reassuring the officers that he didn’t have a medical emergency and that there had been a mistake. Afraid and alone, Chamberlain, a veteran who suffered from bipolar disorder, feared for his life. After a long stand-off with the police, who ridiculed Chamberlain’s military service and used racial epithets when addressing him, the officers eventually knocked down the door and shot Chamberlain. A jury later found neither the police nor the city liable; the victim’s family appealed the decision in 2018. In June 2020, an appellate court confirmed that the officers had violated Chamberlain’s 4th amendment right by using excessive force and unlawful entry.
The indie film is Executive Produced by Morgan Freeman, Lori McCreary, Gary Lucchesi, Sharad Chib, Chris Paladino and Milan Chakraborty and stars actor Frankie Faison (The Wire). Created with the support of the victim’s son, Kenneth Chamberlain Junior, the devastating drama narrates the last moments of Chamberlain’s life in real-time. The film, written and directed by David Midell (NightLights), premiered at The Austin Film Festival in 2019 to great acclaim, winning both the Jury Award and the Audience Award. Academy-Award winning actor Morgan Freeman and Emmy-nominated producer Lori McCreary signed on as Executive Producers after seeing the film last year.
I spoke to Freeman, McCreary, Faison and Chamberlain Jr. about the need for police reform and accountability. We also spoke about the film’s potential impact in the wake of what has been the largest nationwide demonstration of civil unrest in this generation.
Risa Sarachan: Kenneth, can you tell me a bit about just how directly involved you were in the making of this film?
Kenneth Chamberlain Jr.: David Midell, the writer of the script, contacted me through Facebook. He said he was looking for a family member of Kenneth Chamberlain Senior. I said, “I am his son. How can I help?” We talked about the killing of my father, and we talked about how it didn’t get national attention. He said he wanted to help. I asked him how and he said that he wanted to make a movie. Now, I’ve had people say that to me in the past, but he actually took the initiative. He contacted my attorney. We sent over transcripts from the actual day that my father was killed and court transcripts. I read it, sent it back, gave him the thumbs-up, and now I’m here on this Zoom with Frankie and Morgan.
Sarachan: Morgan, how did you first learn about this story?
Morgan Freeman: My relationship to this story didn’t exist until now. I didn’t know anything about the Kenneth Chamberlain incident, but after the movie was made, like everyone else who has seen it, I just came away with the idea that this is a story that really should be told, has been told well. So how can we help, what can we do to promote it?
Sararchan: Frankie, you give such a phenomenal performance in the film. How did you make this role real for yourself?
Frankie Faison: First off, I didn’t know of Kenneth Chamberlain or his importance or anything. I was just handed a script that told a very compelling story. That drew me in, and all of these things that have happened since we made this film, I am very happy about them, because it’s the essence of what I want to do and make in my life in theatre and film. But it all came about sort of as a flood gate just opens up, and one thing led to another and another. I don’t go into a film thinking, this is going to be a great film. As an actor, I just go into it saying, I like it. I embrace it, and I’m going to do the best I can. And I was a little bit taken by surprise by the impact this film has demonstrated so far in its short life. So, my preparation is that first, I begin with what the writer has given me, and the writer David Midell gave me something that was amazing to work with. I deal with that, and then I deal with the honesty of the situation. You say this is a one-man thing, but with every single individual in this film, I could not have done the work I did without them. I mean, I’m the central character of the film, but all of these people came in with their commitment and dedication and heart to take this journey together. I could not have done the things I did without them. I’m an ensemble kind of a person, and I feel like this is such an ensemble piece. You can’t forget about those people on the other side of the door, including the police officers. Enrico [Natale] did an amazing job. If you didn’t have his character in the film, it would be one-sided, but there was that element. You also have the element of the people in the hall who are trying to make some sense out of this situation. It was a complete collaboration of everybody, and that is what moves me so much about it.
Sarachan: Did you and your fellow castmates have any conversations beforehand when handling such upsetting material?
Faison: Only a couple of times. The one that I remember that was most touching for me is the one who played the young cop when they break in. He’s the one who uses the N-word. He said, “I have a real problem saying that – I can’t say that word.” I just took him aside and said, look, this is what we do. This is not you, but in order for you to make this real and to make this film work, you need to just let that go and do it.
Sarachan: How do you think the traumas that this country has experienced will inform the way that we view it now?
Chamberlain Jr.: What we saw during a pandemic where a police officer placed his knee on the neck of a black man and killed him is something that we’ve been talking about forever. We call it extrajudicial killing and summary executions. And the hope now is that for me, I always say it’s bigger than my dad. It’s about all the lives that have been lost this pandemic of killing black men, women and children. And I just hope that the film, as Morgan said, is going to wake people up. It’s going to force a discussion. For my family, I hope that it will force the city of White Plains to hold its officers accountable and say, you screwed up, and now, Hollywood sees you screwed up. The world sees you screwed up. What are you going to do about it? How are we going to fix this? What mechanisms are we going to put in place so that in the future, there won’t be situations like what happened to Kenneth Chamberlain Senior?
Freeman: Hollywood. I live in Mississippi. Frank lives in New York. You know what I’m saying? Not made in Hollywood, just saying. [Everyone laughs].
Faison: Piggybacking on that, I’d just like to say for me personally, when I see all these other things that have happened since then, after having done this film – because I’ve had five policemen come in and lie on my chest in a controlled environment – I remember how that felt. You can’t do anything. I can understand how someone can call out for their mother. They can call out for anyone to help. When you see it, if you haven’t lived it or experienced it, you don’t know, but I remember how it felt. We did it in a really controlled way, and I felt what it was like to have someone trying to get to you when you haven’t done anything [wrong]. I feel that all the work that I did was worthwhile if it can just convey that message. How painful, how hurtful, helpless, everything else you can imagine, one could feel under that unjustified attack.
Freeman: There is confusion about the lack of justification there. It’s like, what is going on here? What did I do?
Sarachan: How do you believe policing should change moving forward? And what are some positive actions that citizens can take to help make those changes happen?
Freeman: Well, I think the political situation needs to change drastically for one thing. So, that means people would have to vote for such change. That means putting people in office who are espousing such change. I’m intrigued by the idea that police on the street don’t need to have guns. This goes back to all the old western days where everybody settled an argument with a gun. Police are still doing that. It’s not like that little thing on the fender of police cars to serve and protect – that’s crap. That’s really not what they think of themselves as here to do. They are here to punish. I’m going to keep the law. You screw up; I’m going to shoot you. Show me your hands, show me your hands, show me your – pow.
Chamberlain Jr: Most times when I speak, I often talk about the rule of law when people ask about what we can do. The rule of law says that the government, its agents, and officials should be held to the same rules that enable a fair and functioning society. This is what we need to see. It’s all about accountability. I always tell people, there will never be justice for Kenneth Chamberlain Senior, but there can be accountability. We can have that. This is the hope, and this is what we want. As Morgan said, it’s putting the right people in office. Unfortunately, what we are seeing is that we have a lot of these elected officials that are running on the social justice platform. They are yelling Black Lives Matter, but they are only doing it because it’s politically advantageous. It works for them. And once they get in office, they do exactly the opposite. We have a New York State Attorney General, who, in my opinion, I have zero confidence in. She’s done absolutely nothing for families that are impacted by police violence. We hear the same thing over and over again for each family. They all read from the same script. That after an exhaustive investigation, the grand jury has decided not to indict the officer in the killing of—you add the name there. We are hoping that this is going to force some kind of real positive change, but we know what we’re up against.
Lori McCreary: I think what really drove the filmmakers to tell the story was realizing how terribly unprepared the police officers were to handle a crisis situation like this. They inadvertently escalated the whole situation. As Kenneth always says, their job is to de-escalate. I think what we keep hoping will happen is that this conversation will happen at a grassroots level that people will understand that we don’t want to defund the police or take money away from the police. We really want to reallocate funds to provide things like more training, social workers, mental health units, and newer, more robust recruitment standards for the police. I think that with organizations like what Morgan has started with the University of Mississippi and what Kenneth speaks about all over the country. That’s what we hope this film will do is just bring the conversation to the grassroots so that we all really understand what it really means.
Freeman: The right people on the other side of that door would have left. They would not have been there. They were told there was no need for them, this was a non-action, and they would have left. We never understand why the police in this situation didn’t. Never understand that.
Faison: I hear the comments from all of the people here today. We are all pretty intelligent people, and we are all looking at ways in which this situation could have been different. I think that all the things that everyone is saying make sense. Why can’t we have a police team that could exercise the same kind of common sense? I’ve always been in favor of good law enforcement officers. They aren’t all bad. The bad ones are bad, and the good ones are good. I would never want to just make a blanket statement saying that law enforcement sucks. It doesn’t. There are people who really try.
Maybe it’s because I am who I am, but I’ve never had a bad experience with a law enforcement officer, so I don’t know how it is from the other side of the spectrum from people who aren’t on television or this and that. If I get stopped, police are like, give me an autograph and be on your way and it’s not fair. Because if I’m doing something wrong, I want a ticket too. I want to be viewed under the same rules and laws as everyone else. If this had happened in a white community, you wouldn’t have them breaking down that door. You just would not have had it. It should be a level playing field.
Sarachan: Kenneth, I know you’ve been battling for justice ever since your father’s murder at the hands of the police. What keeps you motivated to stay the course and continue fighting?
Chamberlain Jr.: I could tell you a soft version of what motivates me, but I will tell you the honest truth. That happened on the day that my father was killed. I went to the hospital. I asked the police officers there what happened. They told me they didn’t have to tell me anything. I then walked outside, and when I did that, I was surrounded by about 10 to 12 police officers. They were putting their gloves on, and they were kind of smirking. I looked at one of the police officers, and I said to him, “you want to know the difference between other people that you’ve done this to and me?” And he said, “what?” And I said, “you’re dealing with an intelligent Black man. I know how to fight you.” He looked me up and down, and he said, “f*** you.” And that is what drives me. That is what pushes me. Because I said I’m going to take these laws that I know place no value on my life or on any other Black man’s life, and I’m going to beat you with these same laws. So, that was my motivation, and as I said, it’s bigger than my dad. There are so many that were lost before my father and so many lives that were lost after. So, I’m fighting for those lives as well. Because if I win, then I have created a case law that they can use to fight their battles. So, that’s what motivates me—and having people like Frankie and Morgan.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.