Traffic stop that changed a teacher's life

Traffic Stop shows how life changed for African-American teacher Breaion King after she is stopped for speeding by a white police officer.
Traffic Stop shows how life changed for African-American teacher Breaion King after she is stopped for speeding by a white police officer.PHOTO: HBO ASIA

REVIEW / CRIME DOCUMENTARY

TRAFFIC STOP (PG)

29 minutes/Available on HBO Go and HBO On Demand (StarHub TV Channel 602)

4 stars

The story: Teacher Breaion King is stopped for speeding by a police officer. She is black and the officer is white. Dashcams record the struggle that follows. This film, nominated for an Academy Award in the Documentary Short Subject section, includes interviews with Ms King after the incident, talking about how those few minutes changed her life.

It is a clip that appears with dismaying frequency on Twitter or Facebook. The characters are different, but the scenario stays the same: White policemen are seen using a shocking amount of force against an African-American citizen.

What is even more alarming are the viewer comments that follow. Many will take the line that any sign of reluctance to comply - to lie on the ground or ready the hands for cuffs - justifies a brutal response.

The wife-and-husband team of director Kate Davis and producer David Heilbroner must have read and digested the thoughts behind those comments because this documentary seems aimed at the many who feel that only "bad" people get treated badly by men in uniform.

Instead of framing the incident as an issue for investigative journalism, the duo make this a passionate appeal to humanity.

Their camera follows Ms King as she throws herself into what she loves: Teaching mathematics to kids and dancing with her troupe. It is an act of normalisation - she is a whole, real person who deserves to be treated as such.

The clips are shown by the film-makers without commentary about the excessive use of force against minorities or indeed any narrator with a viewpoint. This is a smart move that allows details of her character to build, so that when one looks at the dashcam video again, a picture emerges of a woman who has earned her place in the world. She is someone who thinks it is normal to question unreasonable instructions.

Faced with this portrait of someone who might be a feisty relative or assertive friend - not a racial profiling statistic, political talking point or a member of a minority race - it becomes apparent that the policeman who pulled her over was unprepared for a response other than utter submission. Once he was denied this, he lost control of the situation and regained it using the only method he knew.

In this film, which is both infuriating and heartbreaking to watch, a few minutes of tape is dissected for its emotional after-effects. For the policeman, it will be forgotten in hours, but for Ms King - and the viewer - the disquiet lasts a fair bit longer.

• Traffic Stop is available on HBO Go and HBO On Demand (StarHub TV Channel 602). It screens again on Aug 10 at 9.25pm on HBO Signature (StarHub TV Channel 603).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2018, with the headline 'Traffic stop that changed a teacher's life'. Print Edition | Subscribe