‘A Clear Shot’ shows diversity on police forces a good thing
Mario Van Peebles and Hao Do

In the sad wake of the George Floyd murder by a white police officer in Minneapolis, the new feature film A Clear Shot that is about to open shows how ethnic, racial and gender diversity on a police force is a positive good that often helps to avert worst-case scenarios and turn events around in at least a less lethal direction.

On a toxic police force with an “occupation” mentality, naturally, even diversity is not necessarily a cure-all. Again with respect to George Floyd’s murder, the widely circulated video of the killing by strangulation shows the murderer’s partner complicity standing by as onlookers protest, trying to shame him for his inaction. Alvina Yeh, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), an AFL-CIO affiliate, said in a May 26 press release, “We are equally enraged and ashamed to learn that an Asian American police officer, Tou Thao, just stood watch as his co-worker treated George Floyd inhumanely…. We’ve said this before and we’ll say it again because the work continues; we all have a role in responding to atrocious acts of violence. As Asian American and Pacific Islander working people, we commit to leveraging our power to dismantle oppressive systems, addressing anti-blackness in the AAPI community, and loving and fighting for our black siblings.”

Urban music video director Nick Leisure (Janitors, B-Smoove, E-gypt Feat, Carla Fleming) helms his third feature film in A Clear Shot. Leisure is a native of Sacramento, and he has adapted a local story for this low-budget work (around $1 million) filmed, however, in Baja California, Mexico. An ineptly assembled gang of four Vietnamese immigrant young men, one 21, the rest teenagers (Hao Do, Tony Dew, Kevin Bach, Dang Tran), are poor, out of work, living in a crowded home (three of them are brothers) with an authoritarian parent, are not very fluent in English, and feel despised by society. They had been brought to the U.S. by their father as “boat people” in search of a better life after the end of the American War on Vietnam.

With somewhat differing levels of commitment to the scheme—one brother would much rather be planning his further education—they acquire weapons and devise an electronics store robbery as a kind of initiation ceremony for their life of crime. The film is based on just such an incident at a Good Guys! franchise in Sacramento in 1991.

It’s not a well thought-out plan, however, and from the start things do not go well. They would have been lucky to bail on the robbery once it appeared unfeasible, but by that time they had a store full of hostages, both staff and customers, and a battery of cops waiting for them outside. They announce their demands—$4 million, a helicopter in which to flee the country, and full-body kevlar for protection—but the police are not prepared to give in.

Normally, I am not drawn to police dramas, and in the end, that’s what this is. What drew me to this one were the racial, ethnic, immigrant, and gender factors, and overall issues about how men assert their manliness. The Sacramento P.D.’s lead hostage negotiator is Rick Gomez (Mario Van Peebles), who is of mixed Mexican and African-American parentage. He is fluent in Spanish and he also knows what poverty and racism feel and look like. The end of the story is well-known: It’s still remembered as the “largest hostage rescue operation in U.S.history.” But the denouement of the crime itself is not the interesting part. It’s the internal racism within the police department that is the primary focus.

Gomez must contend with the know-it-all, politically sensitive Sheriff Todd (Michael Balin), with his all too pretentious and evidently home-dyed stache and goatee. And with Kappy (Marshal Hilton), who is technically the #2 man in charge but who seems to believe that Gomez is only in his position as ethnic window dressing and to receive the credit for a successful outcome. Then there’s the trigger-happy SWAT commander Devlin (Rafael Siegel) with his own ideas about who’s in charge and how this situation needs to go down. One can only wonder if these guys are all playing on the same side, or if ego is driving them in quite divergent directions.

Between the three of them, the racial “micro-aggressions” toward Gomez come fast and furious, with many a knowing wink and eye-roll to reassure one another of the natural hierarchy that by all rights should apply here, but unfortunately doesn’t. Each one thinks their approach is the best, while Gomez patiently holds back his judgment. He’s willing to try negotiation, psychology, and coolheaded understanding to extricate the hostages as safely as possible and avoid the loss of human life.

In the meantime, there’s also a lady cop in the picture, Advencula (Jes Meza), with whom Gomez shares a certain past history (and there are hints of a possible future history too.) She plays what amounts to the loyal but questioning sidekick and partner role, and because of her gender and Latinx background she is also able to defuse a prickly encounter with the media that’s hovering like vultures in the shopping mall parking lot looking for blood.

All of this Leisure handles deftly on the outside, as the terror and confusion reign on the inside, where a few staff members and customers about to be trapped in the crossfire are lifted up into small cameo personalities.

Perhaps A Clear Shot comes at the right time for America just now: Gomez could well become a kind of folk hero for the “new law enforcement”—sensitive, vulnerable, slow to judge, emotions in check, as invested in knowing the “why” of these young men’s desperation as in the actual, but so far non-lethal crime in the process of commission. Gomez achieves small victories with trust-building deals, but meanwhile the clock is ticking as afternoon turns into night, people are anxious and scared, the authorities want this event to end, and no one has agreed to much of anything. What will heroism look like on a day like this?

A Clear Shot offers not so much the FX, chases, explosions, and clear-cut villainy of hateful cartoon figures, but a story driven by troubled and conflicted characters. With its more than competent cast who portray imperfect but understandable people, this is a film that humanizes what the larger society has tried to dehumanize through its interlocking directorate of bias and prejudice. From all accounts it also serves the historical record well, though probing more deeply, as newspaper articles probably never could, into the main characters’ psyches.

As a side note, I would add that when I visited Vietnam last year I had occasion to meet some “boat people” from that era who had subsequently returned to their homeland and reintegrated into their families and communities. The Vietnamese were understandably apprehensive about these people who had left and now returned. What were their intentions? Had they returned to Vietnam to stir up dissent or commit crime? I can just imagine what kind of reception these four petty gangsters would have found if they had somehow succeeded in getting back to their native land. I can picture a long period of “re-education” before they’d be allowed to re-enter civil society, and they probably would not have liked that much. Judging from the comparative approaches to the current coronavirus crisis, Vietnam has shown its mastery of planning and unity of resolve (an astounding 0 deaths!), while the same kinds of ethnic and gender divisiveness, and societal cross-purposes, that the film highlights in 1991 still very much tell the story of America today.

The trailer can be viewed here. UNCORK’D Entertainment releases A Clear Shot June 2 on DVD and On Demand.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.