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One of the most galvanizing episodes in this generation’s civil rights struggle, the brutal arrest and question-raising death of activist Sandra Bland, is poignantly explored in David Heilbroner and Kate Davis’ Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland. Hitting Tribeca alongside the first episode of a Trayvon Martin docuseries and other race-conscious docs, the film is not as effective in its storytelling as the duo’s previous Tribeca entry, 2014’s The Newburgh Sting. But it captures the controversy emotionally enough to move audiences on the fest circuit and, when it airs on HBO later this year, should revive conversations about this upsetting case.
Bland was a native of the Chicago area who, having been offered a scholarship to the historically black Prairie View A&M University in Texas, moved far from her tight-knit family. Frustrated with job options in Chicago after several years post-graduation, she decided to return to Texas for a part-time job at the university and to pursue a master’s degree. Within a week of arriving back in Waller County in July 2015, she was dead — found hanging from an improvised noose in a jail cell.
Theories would soon swirl online about what happened to Bland, with some far-away protesters suggesting not just that she had been killed in police custody, but that she hadn’t even been alive when she was brought to the jail, with local officials doctoring photographs and videos to invent a false three-day narrative. Davis and Heilbroner more or less debunk such conspiracy theories; but they have difficulty constructing a solid chronology of the three days between Bland’s arrest and the discovery of her body. When balancing accounts of Waller County officials with the skepticism of Bland’s family, the doc sometimes confuses matters when it could clarify them, waiting unnecessarily to acknowledge questions a viewer will ask.
What the film does best is bear witness to what happened on the day of the arrest and place it in the context of Bland’s political life. Early on, we’re introduced to the “Sandra Speaks” series of online video journals, in which she not only laments the policing controversies of the day but urges black friends not to view whites as the enemy. (The film gives us no idea how many viewed these videos or how people would have heard of them.) So Bland had done plenty of thinking about capricious traffic stops when, on July 10, Texas state trooper Brian Encinia pulled her over for failure to signal a lane change.
We witness their encounter through now-famous dashcam footage from Encinia’s cruiser, and watch as the officer escalates what should have been a routine interaction (assuming it should have happened at all). Soon, having maneuvered Bland into an emotional confrontation, Encinia opens her car door and is trying to drag her out by force, pointing a stun gun at her and threatening, “I will light you up.” The most violent part of the arrest happens off-camera, but there’s no room to debate that Encinia used excessive force and failed in his duty to keep the peace.
Say Her Name is also effective in chronicling how Bland’s sisters and mother responded to the news of her death — questioning discrepancies in Waller County’s account; arranging for an independent autopsy; and participating in the national eruption of protest. We understand their shock at the idea that this smart, deeply engaged woman would kill herself — disbelief that was shared by college friends the film interviews. But the film ignores the account of a woman who was in a jail cell next to Bland’s during her imprisonment (Alexandria Pyle described Bland as deeply distraught when interviewed by journalists, and said she heard nothing to suggest foul play); and when we learn that Bland had attempted to kill herself once before, no one is asked how they reconcile that with their disbelief.
It’s easy to imagine how uncomfortable it would be to challenge a grieving mother’s conviction that her daughter would have fought for justice instead of ending her own life. But the film’s willingness to be wishy-washy on this front — it raises other questions about physical evidence even after the family’s own team seems to concede she killed herself — will not help it convince skeptics of a conclusion other interviewees arrive at in common-sense fashion: If institutional problems surrounding the policing of black Americans led Brian Encinia to attack her, and if that attack sent her to a jail cell when a white person would have walked free, then racism killed Sandra Bland, no matter who tied the noose.
Production company: Q-Ball Productions
Directors-producers-editors: Kate Davis, David Heilbroner
Executive producer: Sheila Nevins
Directors of photography: Tom Bergmann, Kate Davis
Composer: Joel Harrison
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Documentary)
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