When Sandra Bland introduced her YouTube series to the world in 2015, she described its concept as a seed God planted in her. With “Sandy Speaks,” she would start a dialogue about the injustice occurring in America.
These murders weighed heavily on Bland, and she often urged parents to educate their children about how to interact with police.
Ultimately, it was a lesson that couldn’t save her.
On July 10, 2015, Bland was pulled over by officer Brian Encinia for a minor traffic violation. After a nasty verbal exchange during which Encinia threatened to use a Taser on Bland, Encinia forcibly removed Bland from her vehicle. She was later transported to country jail where she was placed in solitary confinement.
Three days later, her family was informed she was found hanging in her cell.
In HBO’s “Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland,” Academy Award-nominated filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner document the aftermath of Bland’s death, introducing disturbing evidence collected during her brief incarceration.
Just one day after her body was flown home, a film crew began documenting Bland’s family and legal team as they worked to secure information about her death.
To Heilbroner, the circumstances of filming were not unusual. “One of the things we do is try to find stories we can tell in real-time,” he said after the Washington, D.C., screening of the documentary last week.
At 28, Bland led a complicated life. She had little luck finding a well-paying position after graduating from Prairie View A&M University in Houston. After amassing fines for traffic violations, Bland served 30 days in jail for marijuana possession.
She left Texas to return to her home state, but life in Illinois was not much better. According to tax records, Bland barely grossed $8,000 annually four years after she earned her degree. Her friend, Robert Lega, told the Nation that her record made it tough to land work, and that Bland often spoke about her depression.
Her history of mental illness would later be exploited to offer an excuse for her death.
In the film, Bland’s sisters maintain they are not accusing law enforcement of killing Bland in her cell, but want Encinia to be held liable for assaulting Bland and fabricating charges that led to her fatal incarceration.
So much of Bland’s story is centered on her experience as a black woman in America, struggling to break out of poverty after enduring incarceration because of it. Black audiences may wonder whether Davis and Heilbroner — who are white — can aptly deliver the story of a young black activist.
“We wanted to tell the story because we’ve had a career of doing civil rights stories. I just care about these issues. I care about people,” said Heilbroner. “We happen to have a platform that we can offer and [our] films have done really good things. There were a lot of people who wanted to tell the story.”
White filmmakers traditionally have more opportunity and reach than filmmakers of color, but often fail at translating the black experience onscreen.
“Detroit,” for example, which focused on the Algiers Motel murders, a violent incident during the 1967 Detroit riots that culminated in the death of three black teens and the criminal trial of the cops implicated in their murders, was praised by mainstream critics and performed well in limited release, but received heavy criticism for casting a “white gaze” on the experiences of young black men.
Documentary films often do not fare much better. “The Rape of Recy Taylor” tells the story of the abduction and rape of Recy Taylor — a black woman — by a group of white men. There were no arrests, but Taylor’s rape made headlines across the country. The rape occurred on Sept. 3, 1944, and obtaining justice for a black woman in the segregated South was nearly impossible.
The film was described as flawed in the New Yorker for its overuse of generic footage, odd choices in audio editing and the minimal screen time it dedicated to Taylor herself.
Both films lacked cultural nuance while examining historical events involving white violence against black people.
Emmy-nominated producer and documentary filmmaker Maeyan Bassey said it is less about who is making the film and more about how they treat the story.
“Steven Spielberg did a great job with ‘The Color Purple,’ when we start seeing the white savior point-of-view that’s cause for criticism,” Bassey said. “It matters who’s at the helm. It is important to have a person of color or a person with awareness and sensitivity.”
Bassey notes that documentary filmmaking is more difficult for filmmakers of color who may have a hard time finding funding and people willing to let them tell their stories.
In “Say Her Name,” the use of featured “Sandy Speaks” excerpts, and the gritty dashcam and onlooker footage give the impression that the story is seemingly narrated by Bland herself.
As cameras follow her family’s legal team while they fight to get answers, interviews with her mother and sisters provide insight into the captivating woman Bland was and why her story continues to matter.
Part of what makes the film work is the directorial decision to present both sides of the story neutrally while letting the story unfold, even though Heilbroner has a very clear stance on Bland’s death.
“Sandra Bland was lynched by the system. One way or another, this is a story of an American lynching,” he said. “The balance is just to let people know, I was not hiding anything that will exonerate law enforcement. I want everybody to know this is all on the table."
Unfortunately, despite its title, the film fails to adequately represent the movement that inspired Bland and further mobilized in her name, erasing the efforts of black women activists that have fought for the safety of black women and women of color for decades.
Author and police-misconduct attorney Andrea Ritchie co-authored the Say Her Name report released in May 2015 to bring awareness to police violence against women after the highly publicized cases of black men including Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. Two months later, Bland’s case brought the movement more visibility.
“There was a lot of organizing that happened under Say Her Name. Like everyone involved in the movement, I found out about the film when it was in post-production,” said Ritchie, who released a book about racial profiling, police brutality and immigration enforcement. “This is a powerful film, but it is also important to talk about the larger context of the movement that is continuing to fight.”