Every Tuesday, our resident true crime obsessive gets their fix with a documentary film or series. We call it True Crime Tuesdays.
While this six-part documentary might not fit squarely into the ‘true crime’ genre – in that no crime was committed, except by agents of the state – it is nevertheless a forensic look at a case that is now synonymous with systemic violence. As a study in the way the society works against impoverished people of colour in America, in the decade when Black Lives Matter came to prominence, Kalief Browder’s story is unparalleled. This Netflix original examines each travesty he endured rigorously.
Co-produced by Nick Sandow (who plays prison warden Joe Caputo in Orange is the New Black – a process which he credits with making him more aware of the injustices within the prison system) with Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason (both of whom went on to produce Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story), the bare facts of the case are upsetting enough. At 16 years of age, returning from a party, Browder was stopped by the police after being accused of stealing a backpack. Taken into custody to await trial, his family couldn’t afford to bail him out. He was transported to Rikers Island, where he spent over 1,000 days, more than 700 of which were in solitary confinement.
Only when he was finally released, the charges having been dismissed without trial, did people start paying attention. After being turned down by 11 lawyers who said he didn’t have a case, he eventually retained one, and began the long process of suing the NYPD for wrongful arrest, the Bronx District Attorney for denial of a fair and speedy trial, and the Department of Corrections for his treatment at Rikers Island. The media then picked up on his story, he appeared on various news and talk shows, and this documentary crew started interviewing him.
Kalief didn’t want fame – he wanted justice. He started taking classes at Bronx community college, but his rehabilitation into civilian life proved difficult. His time at Rikers had left him with a variety of mental health problems, and it’s clear from his demeanour on the talk shows as well as his faltering interviews in the documentary that all was not well. He had issues, too, re-assimilating into his old neighbourhood, where he was on the receiving end of unwanted attention. At the age of 22, before anything could be brought to trial – a process he was doubtless dreading – he hanged himself from his mother’s air conditioning unit.
The narrative unspools via Kalief’s deposition interview – during which, among other things, he was made to repeatedly describe his suicide attempt at Rikers. Throughout the documentary, amid the talking heads of the people who knew and loved him, as well as activists and commentators (many of whom are remarkably contained, even upbeat, given the emotive subject), there is footage of his treatment there. It’s gruelling stuff, reminiscent of the final episode of Ava DuVernay’s Central Park Five dramatisation, When They See Us, which details Korey Wise’s time in solitary.
The overarching narrative is one in which the cards were stacked against Kalief from the start. Having been fostered, then adopted, he was under surveillance from the state for his entire, short life. After his arrest, the system failed him in every way possible, from the point he was unable to make bail to the lack of a speedy trial, which meant he was left, forgotten, in an adult jail. The proliferation of ‘plea deals’ – which encourage people to admit to crimes they didn’t necessarily commit, leading to lifelong felony records – was unacceptable to a young man who still had belief that the truth will out. Jay Z refers to him in the documentary as a “prophet”; he was certainly an accidental hero.
The documentary is also a testament to Kalief’s mother, Venida, and the toll his ordeal took on her health and mental wellbeing. After his death, she hoped his legacy would shine a light onto a system some say is broken, others say is doing exactly what it was set up to do – keeping poor black people locked up. Venida hoped public awareness of her son’s plight would ensure countless others didn’t suffer the same fate – a goal shared by the filmmakers. This is by no means a flawless documentary – it’s fairly repetitive, and the use of reconstructions seems redundant at best. It also makes for extremely difficult viewing. But, while being a tough watch, it feels like a necessary one.
Time: The Kalief Browder Story is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £8.99 monthly subscription.