In 2004, when she was 16 years old, Cyntoia Brown shot and killed a man she alleges had picked her up hours earlier in a Nashville parking lot intending to pay for sex. Despite claiming self-defense, Brown Long, who has since changed her surname to reflect her marriage, was tried as an adult and convicted of murder in the first degree, and eventually sentenced to 51 years in prison. The year of her trial, she was likely seen as just another lost cause — a mentally ill murderer, a teenage prostitute.
Over a decade later, however, thanks to the cultural shifts of #MeToo, changes in Tennessee’s legal code and greater awareness of human trafficking, Brown Long is now more widely viewed as a victim of childhood sexual abuse. Over the past few years, as she and her legal advocates appealed for clemency, celebrities such as Rihanna and Kim Kardashian publicized her plight, fomenting the social media campaign #FreeCyntoiaBrown. In August 2019, she was released on a commuted sentence after serving 15 years in prison for Johnny Michael Allen’s death.
Brown Long’s story is indeed extraordinary. Yet, while Netflix’s flimsy, pathologizing documentary Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story introduces you to the basics of her groundbreaking case, it ultimately does little to elucidate the wider social, racial or political contexts that led to her conviction or commuted sentence. In fact, it leaves enough gaps to make you question its entire point of view.
Director Daniel Birman, who shot his footage before Brown Long was able to legally consent, shapes this case into a reductive personal redemption tale without providing audiences much sense of the legal system that mutated around his subject and other imprisoned women in similar scenarios. With all of the saintliness of a cobbled-together cash-grab, Murder to Mercy is a mere tabloid exclusive come to life.
Seemingly repackaged from his 2011 film Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story, this Netflix collage incorporates interviews with courtroom recordings, each chronological chapter bookended with cheesy graphics that evoke Hard Copy in the late 1990s. These interviews include troublingly intimate footage of teenage Brown Long pouring her heart out about her incarceration or undergoing grueling psychological testing. Her assessors diagnose her with a personality disorder, and later, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder after her biological mother confessed on camera to drinking non-stop while pregnant. These moments are intended to warm you to Brown Long, a mere child, but they also medicalize her, rendering her object instead of subject. Under Birman’s gaze, she’s a specimen to be studied, not a flesh-and-blood person.
Yet, even then, his narrative is spotty. We learn, in dribs and drabs, that Brown Long’s biological mother, Georgina, placed her up for adoption when she was 2 years old, but we aren’t privy to the pertinent details of how her loving adoptive mother, Ellenette, came into her life. Nor do we learn much about Brown Long’s years before the doomed day Johnny Michael Allen brought her back to his home. We’re told Brown Long took up with a brutal boyfriend-turned-pimp called “Kut” who forced her into sex work, but little else is said about him, or even Allen, for that matter.
We hear from various attorneys and activists who believed in Brown Long’s potential to rehabilitate, but the documentary spends barely any time digging into the vast and organized operation to free her. Most of the film, instead, features Brown Long during the time of her incarceration, her younger self speaking candidly about her fate. These moments aren’t touching, but invasive: You feel the guilt of inadvertently reifying her pain just by watching.
The most effective scenes aren’t with Brown Long herself, because despite her lucid vulnerability and wisdom at such a tender age, this older footage feels more exploitative than expository. Instead, Birman’s greatest successes here are his interviews with his subject’s captivating, though downtrodden, biological family and their calcified perspectives on the cycles of abuse that may have contributed to the young woman’s troubles. Her biological mother, who is only 16 years older than her daughter, harrowingly describes childhood sexual abuse, suicidal mental illness, forced sex work, crack cocaine addiction and her own incarceration.
Meanwhile, Georgina’s elderly mother recalls, in detail, the violent rape that led to her own pregnancy, and even advocates a form of eugenics, wishing her own mother had had a hysterectomy at age 16 so she herself could never have been born.
Unfortunately, Birman mostly ignores the racial politics of the case, not even questioning, through editing, whether conscious or unconscious racism could have influenced the decision to try biracial Brown Long as an adult or convict her of felony murder. It is another example of the director eschewing his authorial voice.
Inserting himself into the doc, revealing exactly how he has shaped this narrative over the course of a decade, would have lent authenticity to his story. The film never explains how this footage was shot, though, at one point, an interviewee makes a passing reference to how Birman’s long-ago documentary first got him interested in helping Brown Long. Remaining behind the veil disingenuously obscures his personal role in the case and renders Murder to Mercy little more than a cinematic pat on the back.
Directed by: Daniel H. Birman
Premieres: Wednesday (Netflix)