Law & Order opens with a series of mugshots strung through a slide projector, each face pallid and drained of color, exhibiting only fear, anger and confusion. The stills depict emotional archetypes, functioning only as “objective” record of a crime, not representation of a person or personality. Frederick Wiseman models the focus of his police-and-thieves documentary on this facelessness, never revealing names or creating characters, merely observing the indifference of a system that oppresses parties on both sides of the thin blue line.
Compiled from snippets of arrests, interrogations and idle chatter, the camera acts as impartial third party to the daily grind of the Kansas City Police Department, magnifying small moments of conflict between civilians and officers into a broader statement on authority and class in America. Filmed with a handheld camera and employing tight shots of furrowed brows and quivering lips, the stark, monochromatic footage organically captures heartbreak in the eyes of every victim and victimizer, often drawing parallels between the two parties through their race, distrust of authority and lack of income.
The palpable tension lingering between the predominantly white force and the black community they “serve and protect” is the result of excessive violent behavior, an extreme response administered to both petulant and compliant suspects. On one hand, the arrest of an aggressive carjacker typifies composed police work and a reasonable amount of physical force, taking into consideration the terroristic threats made by the perpetrator and the erraticness of his conduct. On the other hand, a prostitution sting devolves into a docile suspect being choked into submission by a plainclothes officer, her nightgown falling from her body as she desperately struggles for oxygen against the forearm thrust into her windpipe.
As harrowing as this snapshot is, Wiseman doesn’t want the piece to focus solely on the most appalling example of public service, but fixate on the concept of authority and how it functions in a free society. The arbitrary nature of law and the exclusive right to administer punishment negate ambiguity and individuality, enforcing black-and-white rules that only function to proliferate a class-based system and thwart liberty. Wiseman perceives the civilian and cop as subjugates to “respectful law and order,” indoctrinated into a culture of resignation beneath the chain of privilege that symbolically towers over their heads. His absorbing exposé catalogs the tyranny of this plutocracy, never inserting itself into the field of view or sensationalizing suffering, capturing the insidiousness of oppression through austere observation.
Law and Order (Zipporah Films, 1969)
Directed by Frederick Wiseman
Photographed by Bill Brayne