Netflix's Kalief Browder documentary: a harrowing, galvanising insight into the injustices of the US prison system
The Jay Z-produced series shines a light on the case of Browder, a young black boy from the Bronx, who was wrongly imprisoned and suffered extreme abuse behind bars
Philando Castile. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Freddie Gray. Trayvon Martin. It’s a familiar, grim roll call: black men (and boys; Trayvon was 17, Tamir 12) unjustly killed by US police officers – and then forsaken again when their killers went unpunished.
It’s impossible not to think about these names as you watch Time: the Kalief Browder Story, a six-part documentary series now on Netflix about one young man’s nightmarish experience of the US penal system – and not just because the documentary itself spells out the link, including footage of several of these killings.
The series – backed by Jay Z and co-created by Nick Sandow, who plays Joe Caputo in Orange is the New Black – shines a light on the many insidious ways its deeply sympathetic subject, Kalief Browder, was failed, and eviscerates the myth of justice for all.
Kalief was born in 1993, in the Bronx, New York. The youngest of seven siblings, he was adopted by Venida Browder, a foster carer. He grew up, we learn, to be a good friend, a good brother, talkative, fun, curious. But at 16, in May 2010, he was arrested for stealing a backpack and taken to Rikers Island jail. He was innocent, but it didn’t matter; it was three years before he was free again.
The documentary steadily unravels the string of errors that led to Kalief’s extended incarceration: police improperly recorded his arrest, and the victim’s statement; they failed to investigate possible CCTV of the incident; prosecutors failed to disclose that they lost contact with the victim, whose testimony was their only evidence; several judges allowed delays to continue even as it became clear the prosecution had no case.
The most striking aspect of Kalief’s story, though, is not a failure, but a moral triumph. Though he was repeatedly offered a plea deal – by pleading guilty he could have been out within months – he refused every time, insisting on his innocence, and that his case be heard. It was, says one contributor, “the perfect stance”.
And he stuck to it, even as he was repeatedly attacked by other inmates, even as prison officers deprived him of food, even as they, too, beat him. We know this because we see footage from the jail’s surveillance cameras – it is that flagrant.
The UN considers more than 14 consecutive days in solitary confinement torture; Kalief endured more than two years of it, mostly while still a minor. Several times he attempted suicide. Finally, in May 2013, he was released, after prosecutors admitted that they couldn’t mount a case. Yes, an innocent man was free – but this cannot be called justice.
The documentary deliberately creates an uneven, fractured sense of Kalief’s life after Rikers; though the timeline is roughly chronological, clips from a post-prison TV interview are cut throughout the episodes, while more troubling material – photos of Kalief’s bloodied face, audio of 911 phone calls – appears briefly, as if to recreate Kalief’s own disordered mind. But these threatening flashes also constantly undermine the tantalising idea that he might be able to recover, to start again.
Back in the Bronx, we learn, Kalief struggled. Cruelly, he endured more violence, was shot and later stabbed; he became psychotic and intensely paranoid. Though the series shows he had many champions – his heroic mother Venida, his dogged lawyer Paul Prestia, the staff at Bronx Community College, talk show host Rosie O’Donnell – it wasn’t enough. Another arrest after being caught up in a fight, and the prospect of returning to court, was too much. On 6 June 2015, at the age of 22, Kalief killed himself.
Inevitably, Time: the Kalief Browder Story is not easy to watch – especially the last episode, after the revelation of his death, which follows his mother’s determination to get official recognition and compensation for what her son suffered, despite her own worsening health. It is an intimate, hugely moving look at a family grieving a loss that is beyond understanding, against all reason.
The final scenes are an unapologetic, confronting call to arms: one after the other, writers, academics, lawyers and activists tell us how flawed the system is, how skewed – but also that Kalief’s story has opened up an opportunity. Some have already taken it: last year, President Obama banned the solitary confinement of juveniles, citing Kalief’s case; New York mayor Bill de Blasio announced in June that he intends to close Rikers Island.
But if Time has any one message, it’s that the tragedy of Kalief Browder isn’t confined to one jail cell on Rikers; it is not just about what is happening to young black men from the Bronx – it’s much, much bigger than that. News clips of a spectral Donald Trump juxtaposed with crying Hillary Clinton supporters and Barack Obama waving goodbye from the door of Air Force One make a clear, tacit statement: your voice matters.
The last few minutes are the series’ most powerful, reminding us that though there is some consolation in the fact that Kalief’s suffering, ignored for so long, is being witnessed, there’s more to do. Now you have witnessed, it seems to say, it’s time for you to act, to speak up.
Take the contribution of Jeff Robinson, of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is startling, unflinching. “There are many people who say that the picture of Emmett Till [who was lynched] in 1955 is what sparked the civil rights movement,” he says, as we see two images of the 14-year-old: on the left, bright, smiling; on the right, dead, disfigured. Then Kalief’s face fills the screen, solemn, eyes big. “Well,” says Robinson, “take a good look at Kalief Browder.” And we do.