—by Keith Nelson, Jr.
Sandra Bland was murdered, and the riveting HBO documentary Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland pegs the culprit as racism.
Bland was pulled over in Waller County, Texas on July 10, 2015 for not signaling a lane change, and arrested for allegedly assaulting former Texas Department of State Trooper Brian Encinia. Three days later, she was dead in police custody due to, what the Waller County prosecutors concluded, was a suicide by hanging.
The doc, directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, debuted to a packed audience at this year's Tribeca Film Festival last week and chronicles the two-year journey embarked on by Bland's family to find out what really happened that led to Bland's death as skepticism gains more credence with every scene of the film. For 105 emotionally taxing minutes Say Her Name felt like we were peering into Bland's life and death through the numerous holes poked into the official account of her death.
In the first 10 minutes alone you are hit with an unrelenting inundation of questions that will perplex you to a state of visceral frustration. Why are there jail cells without surveillance cameras? How does the jail know she made 21 phone calls while incarcerated but doesn't know what phone she used? Why was there a plastic garbage bag in her cell when all items that an inmate can potentially harm themselves with are usually removed? How could she have tied a perfect knot on her noose when she was complaining about having arm pain after Officer Encinia's excessively physical arrest?
The film thoroughly examines these questions and nearly every aspect of her life and death, primarily through interviews with those closest to both. We hear from her friends, family members, her attorneys, the Waller County district attorney, the Waller County sheriff, and numerous others, including Bland herself.
The dozens of Facebook videos as part of her Sandy Speaks series permeate the film, and play a pivotal role in ensuring Bland still had a say in how her identity is perceived. Instead of simply choosing to include the Facebook videos from her that were critical of the police in order to embolden the film's overall message of exposing injustice, directors Davis and Heilbroner astutely gave as much time to Bland's videos being critical of fellow Black people as they did her diatribes on police brutality. This added a level of relatable complexity to Bland's character lost in the homogenous news coverage that solely paints her as an emblem of a larger movement that often times blanketed her humanity.
Those Facebook videos are integral parts in Bland's lasting legacy and, surprisingly, would have never existed if she had listened to the same people fighting to make sure her name is never forgotten. "I actually encouraged Sandy to stop posting," Sharon Cooper revealed during the Q+A session following the world premiere. "I was fiercely protective [of her]. You have, I call them the 'online gangsters.' They talk a lot of stuff online, but you see them in person and they wouldn't say a thing."
I warn you now, this film will rip tears out of your eyes with its unvarnished depictions of her death, and snatch away the same breaths reserved for those cries with startling new revelations. For the first time, we see the photos of Sandra Bland's lifeless body laying on the cement floor. For the first time, we're taken into the confidential meeting between Bland's family and the doctor who performed an independent autopsy, wherein the doctor informs them that Bland's injuries are not consistent with those of a hanging. For the first time, we find out from her attorney Cannon Lambert that not only were none of Bland's fingerprints or DNA found on the garbage bag she allegedly hung herself with, but neither was anyone else's.
The pacing of the film is fast but measured, with the documentary often having the feel of the criminal trial Bland never got for her death. When Waller County sheriff Glenn Smith theorizes Bland's suicide could have been caused by her being in a cell for three days, the filmmakers present a recounting shortly after of Bland previously being held in a cell for upwards of a month by a previous attorney of hers.
If you think the prospect of closure will make the gruesome details this film exposes you to more palatable, it won't, because there is none. Say Her Name wasn't made to solve, without a shadow of a doubt, that Bland was murdered by the Waller County police. Say Her Name was made for the very reason the film's namesake implies: so her life, and the injustices perpetrated against Sandra Bland and other Black people, never leaves the national conversation.
Say Her Name is remarkable and will be required viewing when its released on HBO later this year.