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In early 2016, Innocence Project founders Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck received a call from an unusual source: Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel, who was reaching out about a possible series.
At the time, true-crime docuseries like Making a Murderer were finding a rabid audience on Netflix. Neufeld and Scheck’s organization, devoted to exonerating individuals wrongly convicted, seemed ripe to yield dramatic stories. The two attorneys had already fielded and dismissed some show ideas they considered either outlandish or inconsistent with their ideals, but Emanuel’s pitch came with the promise of creative control and eventually led to the Netflix miniseries The Innocence Files.
The nine-episode mini is broken into three themes, each directed by a different documentary filmmaker. Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams takes on the junk science that has led to wrongful convictions, Oscar nominee and Emmy winner Liz Garbus handles witness misidentification, and Oscar winner Alex Gibney looks at prosecutorial misconduct. The thoughtful approach emerged from Neufeld and Scheck’s early conversations with Netflix executives, including vp original documentary film and limited series Adam Del Deo. “They talked to us like this is a serious matter that needs to be addressed, as opposed to, ‘Hey, we can give people an evening of some kind of strange entertainment,’ ” Neufeld says.
Much of Williams’ section is set in Brooksville, Mississippi, where two Black men were wrongfully convicted using faulty bite-mark evidence. To tell the story of the racially divided town, Williams relied on two crews — one mostly Black, one mostly white, “to go into [each] community … I wanted them to feel they could be honest and open.” The narrative begins with the image of one of the men, who had been imprisoned for 18 years, caring for his chickens. “This peaceful man tending to his chickens was for me a great way to show his humanity,” Williams says. “Look at this gentle soul, look at the pain a terrible, messed-up criminal justice system caused to this sweet man.”
The series has received a high-profile endorsement from criminal justice reform’s most famous advocate: Kim Kardashian, who tweeted that she was watching it. And Neufeld and Scheck hope to do more seasons on other themes, like false confessions and police misconduct. “Hopefully people will begin to look at this whole system of mass incarceration and start asking the question, ‘How did this happen?’ ” says Scheck. “Why are all these innocent people in jail? Why is it primarily people of color? What can we do to change it?”
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.