A year after Tony Robinson’s death, Tim Poehlmann-Tynan turns to cinema and the community

The director of 19 talks to us ahead of his documentary’s premiere on May 25

Next week, LakeFrontRow Cinema will premiere 19: The Tony Robinson Shooting — A Case of Deadly Bias and while our subsequent panel discussion will look at systemic racism, community policing, and Madison’s response to Tony Robinson’s death in the year since, the creative process behind the documentary is elucidating as well.

That’s largely by virtue of its engagement. After years as an instructor in media production through the Madison non-profit Youth on Assignment, Tim Poehlmann-Tynan went back to the community, working not just with Robinson’s family but his friends, including Jivonte Davis, who shares a director’s credit on the film. Alongside those interviews is a rigorous dissection of  the media’s coverage and what Poehlmann-Tynan plainly argues is biased narrative.

On the one hand, 19 is as frustrated and compassionate about the Tony Robinson case as the city-wide protests it shows. On the other, it is a steady-handed unearthing of quiet prejudice. I spoke with Poehlmann-Tynan over the phone about his forensic approach to media coverage and the challenges involved with documenting such an emotional subject:

At one point after the death of Tony Robinson did you say “This hasn’t been explored enough?”

I was actually asked to do [the film] by a good friend of mine, David Hart, who’s a prosecutor at the Department of Justice. We got to know each other because I taught his kids for a while. I spent most of my time teaching college students and teens how to make films, and in May of last year, he asked if I would consider doing a piece on the Tony Robinson shooting. I agreed, as long as the family was supportive, and at the time I didn’t know a lot about the realities or what sort of angle we would take with the movie. David and I had worked together [already] where I had taken on an investigative role, and I presumed he was asking me because I had relationships with some of Tony’s friends because of the youth work I had done.

We met with Tony’s mother Andrea [Irwin] and it didn’t take long to realize there was so much more here than what the press and others had presented. I was already very interested in the journalism component and had started shooting interviews when I got a call in Sept from a friend of a friend who’s an investigative reporter. She called and said “I know you’re doing this film on Tony Robinson. I need to talk to some of his friends.” She was doing a story on a national level that basically painted Madison as the most unfavorable city toward black teens with respect to the police. After that, it became clear that in addition to the national police brutality and shootings, this was an important backdrop for Madison’s bias.

So a reporter from another city reaches out and tells you a nation-wide story is looking at Madison for its racial disparities. How did that change your approach?

I had met a couple times with Lester Moore, a black Madison police officer who was really moved by the shooting of Tony Robinson. His public face and his statements on record are really important for him as a police officer but privately, he was really hurting. I didn’t know him very well, but Comedy Central got hold of him and made a segment on Madison police and whether officers are biased. Once I saw that segment, I thought “Well, that’s it.” So yeah, it affected me. It disappointed me. It surprised me, and I thought this is one black guy after another from Madison, and I became convinced that all these factors were important to the Tony Robinson case.

You’re approaching that national significance in a number of ways in the film, one of which is pop culture, specifically how we process violence through that lens. Why did you choose to address bias through Lethal Weapon and Dirty Harry clips?

Well, what did you come away with?

It comes back to mythologizing. American culture in particular perpetuates this trope of the renegade cop going out with guns blazing and that this image is a part of police culture. In reality though, officers are trained not to do that, and so you’re reflecting back on that disjunction.

Based on the feedback I’ve gotten, it’s surprised a lot of people. Hollywood gives status to rogue police officers, and these are the films that Matt Kenny would have grown up watching. That was why I picked films from that time period. There’s no doubt that if one were to watch only those, they would have the impression that that’s what we want our police officers to do, and yet it’s not at all what they’re trained to do. It’s a paradox.

With respect to pop culture, you also find empowering elements to come out of such a terrible tragedy, looking at the music of Chaos Newmoney for example, or the urban artwork you feature. There’s a flip side to our cultural means of processing.

Art of all forms emerges from tragedy, so on the one hand, it’s not at all surprising that we have art that gets squeezed from this rock. It’s what communities do to cope, to express, to reflect, and to memorialize. Given Madison’s artistic community, I would’ve been very surprised if there weren’t such strong artistic expressions, and I’m sure there are more I didn’t capture.

I was impressed with how much you pack into a film that’s a little more than an hour, looking at over 100 different news articles on the case. How did you balance a fact-based process with what was such an understandably angry, emotional response from the public?

I actually had interviews with police officers who knew Matt Kenny who did not want to go on record and who said all kinds of awful things about him, and I was really in a quandary over whether to include that. I got some legal advice and Steve Potter did this extended interview at the Isthmus and became very interested in my preliminary analysis of the media coverage. He kept asking how much of what I did was quantifiable. I have a very ethnographic approach, but I thought if I was going to critique the media, I better do better than the media and so he inspired me to become much more forensic.

Did you establish any working relationship with the Madison Police Department?

Not at all. We have a very antagonistic relationship at the moment.

But you reached out to them?

I had to do everything through the backdoor. I kept hammering them for months for documentation on Matt Kenny’s Medal of Valor, and I was losing my mind. I was going to lawyer up and sue the city for those closed records until I finally got a statement saying they were destroyed, which is not technically a crime given how long ago it was. But the fact that those were the only documents destroyed is really curious.

We also wanted to get the personnel records of [former Madison Police Chief] Noble Wray, who was involved in that whole process, and we had a really hard time. That’s a whole segment of Madison that needs to be hit harder from a legal standpoint. We’ll see what happens after this film, but I’ll go on record and say I think Chief Noble Wray broke the law, and I think I can prove it. So no, our relationship isn’t great. [laughs]

You’re piecing together news clips and interviews with Tony Robinson’s friends and family, but there are large portions of 19 that are the exact opposite of the cinematic form, literal swaths of text slapped on the screen. You actually outline your findings and an alternative case in this long, multi-paragraph statement. Why did you choose to devote so much of your documentary to the written word?

During the post-production back and forth, I had to imagine this for a national audience, as the vast majority of people who watch this are going to see it on a big screen. There were lots of different ways of presenting the dominant narrative and presenting what I felt was the more accurate one, but I decided to go with the scrolling text because I wanted it to be clear, and I felt like I had to balance all that stuff with the newsprint. I think most people aren’t too surprised when we see Fox  News and CNN sensationalizing stories of teens getting shot by cops, but when I went after print media and found such flagrant bias, I was pretty surprised myself. Frankly, we still give a lot of credibility to things in print.

We’re premiering 19 at the library next week, but you screened this privately for some of Tony Robinson’s friends and family. What was that like?

It was rough. This was Andrea’s first opportunity to see the film start to finish on a relatively big screen. It was very emotional, and Andrea had decided to bring her kids. She knew they were going to see it at some point and she wanted to be there. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback and gratitude since then, and I’m thrilled that the people who have seen it are very appreciative. This film was produced for a national audience, so I would expect the reactions of those very close to it to be very different than those who hear about it in the news.

You keep mentioning your hopes for a national audience. How do you plan on getting 19 beyond the Madison area, and what do you anticipate that reaction will be?

We’re going to hit the festivals hard, and I think the reaction will be positive and surprising and shocking. I think our film has an important element about police brutality. We include a very analytical view of media coverage, but also what you opened up with, a reminder that these are the cops we consider heroes in our pop culture. These are the protagonists in our films, and I think that’s an important part of the story.

  • 19: The Tony Robinson Shooting — A Case of Deadly Bias premieres on Wed, Mar 25 at 6:30p in Rms 301 and 302 of the Central Library. A panel discussion with director Tim Poehlmann-Tynan, Brandi Grayson of the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition and Rep. Chris Taylor will follow. Admission is FREE and open to the public. You can RSVP on Facebook.