Seven years after one particularly awful case in Portland, Oregon, the new independent documentary Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse captures the horror once more. The film is a chilling, intimate look at one case of police brutality and the flawed justice system that allows officers to act with impunity.
In the partially-Kickstarter-backed 90-minute film, director Brian Lindstrom offers us a small glimpse into the extraordinarily complex life and heartbreaking death of James Chasse.
Raised in Portland, as a teenager, Chasse expressed feelings of alienation and rebellion that feel familiar to many people. An active member in the local punk rock community in the late ’70s, Chasse fronted his own band and was the inspiration for the song “Alien Boy” by The Wipers. Chasse’s determination to live an independent life on his own terms was evident as early as age 14 when he chose to move out of his parents’ house. From the onset of his teenage years, however, his mental illness emerged. Chasse’s psychosis eventually led to his hospitalization and diagnosis with schizophrenia, but Chasse resisted remaining institutionalized. Medication allowed Chasse to safely integrate into society for many years.
In the weeks leading up to his altercation with the Portland police in September 2006, Chasse’s family suspected he’d gone off his medication. In the film, witnesses who’d been eating lunch at one of Portland’s fancier restaurants recall seeing Chasse possibly peeing on a tree on the sidewalk, being confronted by police, running off, then being tackled, crushed, and kicked by an officer.
In excruciating detail, the film chronicles how the police at the scene noticed that Chasse was in pain, but refused to load him into a waiting ambulance and signed a medical waiver instead. In a particularly distressing clip, we see Chasse being dragged by officers through the station, crying out in agony with a spit sock over his head. This happened more than once. When officers finally decided to take Chasse to the hospital, he died en route in the backseat of a police car with 16 broken ribs and a punctured lung.
Through the aid of archival footage, official court and police documentations, and interviews, Alien Boy is a disturbing look at both the callous police attitudes that led to Chasse’s death and the officers’ ability to escape serious punishment. As the film continues to unearth the mystery surrounding the beating and Chasse’s subsequent death, it becomes more and more clear at how flawed our judicial system remains. While Chasse’s mother tearfully explains the process of grieving her son, the film rolls tape of the officers’ responsible for Chasse’s death giving testimony at the grand jury investigating the fatal incident. Their demeanor is steely as they absolve themselves of blame—after years of legal wrangling, the city winds up being unable to even fire the officers.
Though this particular case occurred in Portland, Alien Boy is a film that’s sadly relevant to any city in the country.