I remember when the Sherman Park riots escalated, and how the images of the burning gas station and the angry protestors in the streets flashed across every media outlet.
I remember how every other white person had their misinformed opinions about how these people shouldn’t be angry.
I remember truly feeling the segregation of Milwaukee as the people who are literally fighting for their lives against the police felt like a world apart from my east side home.
Towards the end of the documentary The Blood is at the Door Step, Nate Hamilton is watching an interview with Sedan Smith, the brother of Sylville Smith, whose death ignited the Sherman Park riots. You can see in Hamilton’s face the unfortunate connection of familial loss that he has with Smith, as he watches the very same images of the Sherman Park riots that I remember so vividly.
It’s a powerful scene that, as someone who could never compare my experiences with the experiences of Smith and Hamilton, puts into perspective the struggle that people of color are facing not just in Milwaukee but all over the country.
The Blood is at the Door Step is a chronicling of the Hamilton family’s fight for justice for the death of Dontre Hamilton, a 31-year-old black man who was shot 14 times by Officer Christopher Manney at Red Arrow Park. The documentary is directed by Erik Ljung, a California transplant who has been living in Milwaukee for ten years now.
Ljung has worked on short videos as a freelancer for years, but The Blood is at the Door Step marks his first full-length film, an ambitious effort that went on to be nominated for a SXSW Grand Jury Award and to win a Golden Badge Award at the Wisconsin Film Festival.
“I moved here from a largely white suburb in northern California, a pretty liberal area, so I was naive to a lot of the issues that Milwaukee faced,” Ljung says.
When the shooting occurred, Ljung was living a mile away from the family. He, along with many others, had many questions about the incident: Why were there so many shots fired? Why were the police called three separate times on a man who wasn’t bothering anybody? What went wrong that third time they were called?
“Being a storyteller, I wanted to do something that was important or could help start a conversation to better things in a way that would help make things equal for everyone,” Ljung says. “A lot of people were throwing the Hamilton family under the bus, assuming things about who they were.”
The Hamilton family story struck a personal nerve with Ljung. Dontre had previously been diagnosed with schizophrenia, which would go on to become a topic of debate in the following court cases as the Milwaukee Police Department used his mental illness to spin the narrative of the shooting in their favor. Ljung’s cousin also suffers from schizophrenia and is currently living on the streets of their hometown.
“Dealing with an adult member of your family with a mental health issue is something a lot of people don’t understand the difficulties of,” Ljung says. “People with schizophrenia don’t develop symptoms until they’re well into their 20s. They don’t want to be dependent, they don’t want to be forced to take pills. It’s a challenge.”
Ljung approached the Hamilton family about making the documentary after one of their candle light vigils for Dontre in the summer of 2014.
“I’m obviously a white guy telling the story of a black family’s tragedy, but I live in this community, and I care about Milwaukee,” Ljung says. “The city is improving with the Bucks arena and the trolley, but who is it improving for? It’s like there are two sides to Milwaukee, and one side is always getting left behind.”
Ljung would go on to spend three and a half years with the Hamilton family, documenting their story.
“Throughout the making of this film I was questioning why I was making it, why it was important to tell this story, why it was important to ask the family questions and put them on camera,” Ljung says. “Was telling the story helping or was it causing more trauma?”
Through the use of feedback screenings with a diverse group of viewers as well as guidance from the Hamilton family, Ljung was able to direct the story in a way that wasn’t taking advantage of the Hamilton family’s situation as a white outsider, but was accurately portraying their story and experiences.
“I have blind spots that I might not be aware of, so getting people’s feedback on it from a different perspective than I grew up with helped,” Ljung says.
The Blood is at the Door Step not only tells the deeply personal story of the Hamilton family in the aftermath of Dontre’s death, but it shows the ways that the family has used their situation to help others. Both Nate and his mother Maria were constantly attending rallies, protests, vigils and meet ups with other families who suffered from similar incidents. Nate would go on to cofound the Coalition for Justice, an organization that has led rallies, protests and street cleanups.
Throughout my viewing of the film, I found myself constantly anxious to hear the courtroom decisions, as if I was there waiting with the Hamilton family. It’s an unsettling reality to hear all of the loopholes that the court system uses to not charge Officer Manney as a criminal. In an especially disgusting turn of events, Officer Manney tries to get his job back as a Milwaukee police officer, adding yet another situation where the viewer is rooting for the Hamilton family.
Another powerful moment takes place when Maria invites other mothers and wives who have lost sons and husbands to police officers into her home for a group healing session and a discussion of police violence. Ljung’s access to these intensely emotional and private areas give the film a credibility that solidifies it as one of the most heart wrenching and eye-opening documentaries I have seen in a long time.
“That was a difficult scene for me to film,” Ljung says. “I was the only white person in the room, I was the only man in the room and I was the only one without a kid in the room. I had no business being in that room, and I felt like it was almost too personal.”
Ljung went home that night with second thoughts about the film.
“It felt very invasive. In documentary making, you want to make a film like this to shine a light on these issues by telling personal stories, but it doesn’t always feel good when you’re doing it,” Ljung says.
But with reassurance from the Hamilton family themselves, Ljung carried on.
“The Hamilton family took a chance on me to tell their story, and this might be the only opportunity they get to tell their story in a full nuanced way,” Ljung says.
With such a heavily layered topic of police violence, racism and social injustice that The Blood is at the Doorstep covers, the documentary doesn’t have a happy ending. These are issues that can’t be solved overnight, and in fact weren’t solved over the course of the three and a half years that Ljung was filming. But it does have a hopeful one.
When we’re shown images of Nate leading a street cleanup in the wake of the Sherman riots juxtaposed with white politicians doing nothing but complaining about the mess that the Sherman riots would leave, we’re left with the notion that the people in power aren’t going to take action. The community has to take action, and with leaders like Nate and storytellers like Ljung, it’s at least uplifting to know that there are those who are still fighting onward.
"The Blood is at the Doorstep" be shown at the UWM Union Cinema on May 3 at 5 p.m. The Hamilton family will be present for a Q&A after the screening. The event is free and open to the public.