The justice system is failing us right now, and it has been for years. If we look at the world around us, the man who walks the halls of the White House and the policies that are reigning down on the citizens and residents of this country, it’s clear that laws are being made to keep us shackled and immobile for generations and centuries to come. We are all being crippled whether literally or morally. However, no group of people has been more devastated, cast aside and broken by the system than impoverished people of color. In her astounding Netflix documentary, “13th” director Ava DuVernay, connected this thread that runs through the past one hundred and fifty years. It is a cycle of impoverishment, imprisonment, death and destruction, and it has been so deeply and so irreparably ingrained in our society that our youngest citizens have given their lives as a result of it.
On May 15, 2010, sixteen-year-old Kalief Browder, a Bronx, New York resident was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. Though he was never convicted of the crime, Browder would spend over the next one thousand days of his life locked away on Rikers Island, being beaten, starved and tortured. He would spend eight hundred of those days in solitary confinement before he was finally released, with all charges dropped in June 2013. On June 6, 2015, at the age of 22-years old, Browder hanged himself at his mother’s home. Not only did the justice system fail Browder, as his fellow citizens, we must also take responsibility.
During the two years between his release from prison and his death, Browder sought to tell his story. As a society, we denied him the right to life, we denied him the right to a fair trial, and in doing so, we attempted to deny his very existence. In a six-part documentary produced by Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and The Weinstein Company, writer/director Jenner Furst outlines Browder’s life in detail. He allows the late young man to speak for himself while using archival footage, haunting surveillance tapes, interviews with his loved ones and commentary from activists like Michelle Alexander, Van Jones, and Jay-Z, as well as words from former Rikers inmates and corrections officers. “TIME: The Kalief Browder Story” highlights how deeply broken we are as a society and what little empathy we have for those whose paths are different from our own.
An evocative and emotionally devastating piece of work, “TIME: The Kalief Browder Story” fleshes out the full being of a young man who was under surveillance for the entirety of his short life. This scrutiny never afforded him the opportunity of a complete childhood, much less a chance at manhood.
Often paralyzing, traumatic and gruesome, I admittedly procrastinated for weeks before finally watching the first episode, which gives a comprehensive look at Browder, the case against him and what he had to endure from the very first day of his life. The first episode opens with the interview from Browder’s arrest and slips back and forth in time, until his first deposition on December 14, 2014, for his lawsuit against the New York Police Department, the Bronx District Attorney and the Department of Corrections. Outlining his childhood, early teen years, his incarceration and release, we meet a tormented young man who while looking shyly into the camera reluctantly speaks of not being able to sleep. Despite his release at the age of nineteen, over three years after his arrest, it’s clear to the viewer from peering into Browder’s anguish-filled eyes that he’s witnessed his own lynching. In one moment during the first episode, his mother Venida Browder points to the holes he’s punched into the walls of his bedroom since returning home. As the camera scans the crumbled drywall, she calmly suggests, that’s how her son expresses his rage.
The second episode of “TIME: The Kalief Browder Story” gives viewers an exhaustive look at the history and brutality of Rikers Island. Browder called it “Hell on earth.” Viewers will observe actual footage of the teen at all of five feet, five inches, being jumped while in various adolescent housing units because he refused to adhere to “The Program,” as well as news footage from the scandals that have plagued Rikers over the past decade, which are even more unsettling. One thing of note is that there are no white Rikers Island inmates ever seen on surveillance footage or shown in the first two episodes of the series. Since the prison itself was formed by a slave catcher, the historical and racial implications are searing.
Regardless of the immense amount of facts and details surrounding New York’s justice system and Rikers Island specifically, director Furst makes certain to keep Browder at the center of this story. Still, the reenactments of Browder sliced in between interviews and footage did not seem necessary; the subject matter is evocative enough without them. Former corrections officers and inmates speaking of feces-smeared walls and images of blood-covered corridors, are not easy to watch; and their recollections of events are accounts I will not soon forget.
While he was here with us, Kalief Browder never received the justice that was due to him. His life, along with so many others, have been cruelly snatched away, without a second thought given to who they were, who they could have been and what they meant to so many people. This series does not have a happy narrative; it’s a story of a life lost and the society and system that dug the grave. However, “TIME: The Kalief Browder Story” desperately needs to be told. It’s a damning series that outlines where we will continue to head, and what we will go on seeing if something drastic does not happen to turn things in a new direction.
In direct response to Kalief Browder’s case, President Barack Obama outlawed solitary confinement for juvenile offenders. And yet, had Browder lived, this ruling would not have eliminated the turmoil and the demons that followed him around for the remainder of his short life, and seeped into the lives of his family members. Just over a year after his death, Browder’s mother Venida, passed away from a heart attack. One inmate described what Kalief Browder had gone through as, “dying with your eyes open,” and we all stood idly by as his life was stolen from him. At the very least then, we can now all grapple with what that life meant.
“TIME: The Kalief Browder Story” premiered Wednesday, March 1 at 10 PM on Spike, and will air on Wednesday nights at the same time through its 6-episode run.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami