In Austin, Tex. in June 2015, a minor traffic violation turned into a major incident when police officer Bryan Richter used excessive force against African American elementary school teacher Breaion King. The dash-cam footage of the arrest went viral, bringing King the kind of notoriety she never wanted. Filmmakers David Heilbroner and Kate Davis focus on the person behind the infamous footage in their film “Traffic Stop,” which is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject.
The married Jewish filmmakers happened to be working on a feature-length documentary for HBO about a similar subject—Sandra Bland, a black woman who was found dead in her jail cell after her arrest for failing to signal a lane change—when they saw the King footage on YouTube. They flew to Texas to meet her and were impressed by her poise, intelligence and accomplishments. King had never been arrested before. She was someone everyone could easily relate to. But she didn’t agree to participate right away.
“She wanted to feel like she could trust us and feel comfortable with us first,” Davis said, speaking to the Journal by phone with her husband. “We worked closely with her to shape the film and find scenes to portray her life, her dancing and her teaching. We wanted to intercut that with the harshness of the dash cam.”
“This is a violent assault on a civilian that did not have to happen. I think Richter was grossly over-reactive and it was a shocking use of force. [King} gently resisted a few of the cop’s commands but was hauled out of the car and tossed around like a rag doll,” Heilbroner, a former prosecutor, said.
King’s lawsuit against the city of Austin is pending.
“I’d like to think she’ll win,” he added. “But sometimes the law isn’t just.”
“This is a violent assault on a civilian that did not have to happen. She was hauled out of the car and tossed around like a rag doll”— David Heilbroner
Calling King “a great role model for kids,” Davis praised her “courage to speak up and stand up to abusive power.” She and Heilbroner are doing what they can to get the film shown in schools, community centers, and police academies, as part of de-escalation training. “Also, I think the film can help people check their behavior more carefully when they encounter law enforcement. It could be a good teaching tool,” she said. “Things can escalate in a nanosecond. People can die. Breaion was lucky that she didn’t.”
The filmmakers found out about their first Oscar nomination when their cell phones began buzzing with congratulatory messages. “The most fun part was calling Breaion and her lawyer to tell them about it,” Heilbroner said. “They were so excited and amazed that her story is going to be at the Academy Awards and our film is going to have a national platform. Even if Breaion loses in the court of law, she may win in the court of public opinion.”
Having made the documentaries “Stonewall Uprising” and “The Newburgh Sting,” in which Muslims and gays respectively were targeted by police, and “Jockey,” an exposé of labor conditions in horse racing, Davis, 57, and Heilbroner, 60, are drawn to socially significant subjects. “I went to law school because I saw it as an agent of change, but I realized I could make a greater difference with documentary film,” Heilbroner said.
The pair met at Harvard in 1979 through their mutual love of music. Davis was a Visual Arts major, but “fell into a filmmaking class by chance and found that it suited me better. Documentaries were a way to use my visual sense with storytelling and political and social justice leanings, and my interests in psychology and music,” she said.
Davis, of Russian- and German-Jewish ancestry, is the daughter of the late Bernard Davis, a Harvard Medical School professor whose father owned a general store. Heilbroner’s mother was not Jewish; His father was the late economist and New School for Social Research professor Robert Heilbroner. His paternal grandfather, a necktie peddler from Germany, became the co-owner of the haberdashery chain Weber & Heilbroner. “It’s a very Jewish story in that our grandfathers were self-made people who came to the land of opportunity and succeeded, and their children became intellectuals and raised us as such,” Heilbroner said.
Neither grew up in a religious home or became bar or bat mitzvah, but feel culturally Jewish. “Katy and I have a really strong feeling about groups that suffer prejudice, marginalization, abuse,” Heilbroner said. “We can identify with someone like Breaion King because there is that in the nature of the Jewish experience. I think we bring that to filmmaking.”
The couple married in 1985 and had two children, Northwestern grad and Democratic campaign worker Quentin, now 23, and Brown University student Katrina, 20. “They’re our most trusted test audiences. They say what they think,” Davis said. “They give us the millennial perspective.” Heilbroner added.
He and Davis are finishing the Sandra Bland documentary, “Say Your Name,” which will premiere later this year on HBO, and Heilbroner is co-directing a biography of singer Dionne Warwicke. “Traffic Stop” is available now on HBO and its On Demand and digital platforms.