Sandra Bland's Sisters Speak On Her Life, Legacy And HBO's 'Say Her Name: The Life And Death of Sandra Bland'

The Life And Death of Sandra Bland

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December 3rd 2018

We know her name. Sandra Annette Bland — affectionately known as Sandy by her friends and loved ones— was just 28 years old in July 2015, when she was pulled over for what should have been a routine traffic stop in Prairie View, Texas. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Bland was ripped from her vehicle by a Texas State Trooper and jailed in Waller County. Three days later, she was found hanged in her jail cell. From the moment the news of her death was reported, it was met with immediate outrage and suspicion. Her story became a leading face in the #SayHerName movement that focus on the Black women and girls who have been victims of police violence but have often been overshadowed in the #BlackLivesMatter movement by male victims whose stories have received more attention. Though Bland’s family is no closer to having answers than they were three years ago, they’ve partnered with Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner to bring Sandra’s story to the big screen while ensuring that her legacy and her name continues to echo loudly around the world. HBO’s Say Her Name: The Life & Death of Sandra Bland begins just ten days after the young activist’s death and follows Bland’s family and the Black community as they desperately search for answers. Ahead of the film’s debut, Shadow and Act sat down with Bland’s older sisters Sharon Cooper and Shante Needham to discuss the movie, who Sandy was, and how they’ve continued to push forward in the midst of overwhelming grief. Photo Credit: HBO Photo Credit: HBO "Sandra was a daughter," Cooper explained, wanting people to know that her little sister was much more than any hashtag could ever convey. "She was the fourth of five sisters. She was an aunt. She was a cousin, she was a friend, and she was a very loved person. Sandy was very intelligent. She loved reading books. She loved cooking. She loved spending time with her nieces and nephews." Bland was also an advocate for Black lives, who was moved to speak out on her YouTube channel Sandy Speaks after witnessing the constant injustices that Black people were experiencing at the hands of law enforcement officers. "She actually started Sandy Speaks just before 2015," Cooper explained. "From the time she started until she passed away —she’d been doing that for about seven months. I think she started with the intent to be proactive and to speak up and not sit on the sidelines. Not to say that others don't do that, I just think that we're in a space where people are tired. Trayvon Martin was a wake-up call for a lot of us. His death revealed that deep-rooted racism not only exists, but it's prevalent to the degree where people feel the need to act on it." As Sandra continued to drum up support online and become more visible, her family was a bit apprehensive about the amount of attention that she was receiving —especially when it came to her safety. "We were proud of her," Cooper reflected. "But as you can imagine activism is selfless work, and it could be dangerous work in the sense that people aren't always happy about the things that you're saying. So I know that as her sisters, we were concerned and protective over her in terms of people lashing out at her or how they would respond to some of the things she would post." Photo Credit: HBO Photo Credit: HBO Still, Bland’s family had no idea how devastating things would become. In fact, from the moment Bland was arrested on July 10, 2015, on University Drive to the moment she was discovered in her jail cell on July 13, the details are still hazy. "She contacted me on July 11— so July 10th, we had no idea what had happened," Shante Needham revealed. "My last text to her was ‘I’m moving to Texas next year.’ I got a phone call on Saturday. I don't know the time, but she told me she was in jail and at that point she had just learned why she was in jail. I guess July 10th she never really knew why he had taken her to jail. She told me what she needed, and I told her I would get it. She said, 'I can call you back,' but she never called me back. The next call that I received was from my cousin -- not the jail. The cousin called and told me that I needed to call the jail because they said that Sandra had passed away." Cooper continued, "For those three days, that's pretty much what we recall externally. Internally, unfortunately, we don't know. What the documentary will show is that we were really seeking to obtain information that would tell us all of what transpired with her while she was there. How she was cared for, or lack there of. We really never received all of that. So in terms of what happened within those three days, unfortunately, we won't know because the person who, as far as I'm concerned, is the owner of that information is no longer here to share it with us." The decision to bring Sandra’s story to the screen was one that no one made lightly — especially considering how soon after Sandra's death that Kate Davis and David Heilbroner approached the sisters and their mother, Geneva Reed-Veal. However, it was a matter of making Sandra's story was told the right way. "Dave and Kate approached us approximately two weeks after Sandy passed away," Cooper remembered. "I know that seems like a quick turn around-- and it actually really was, but in those two weeks, Sandy's story had gone viral. We were willing to work with them because of the experiences we were having with the media in those two weeks. We'd really started to see how they would portray Sandy any way they wanted to, even though it was misaligned with who we knew her to be. People would take the opportunity to create their own narratives. That is something that always stuck with all of us. Her Sandy Speaks videos only tell so much, it doesn't tell a full scope of who she was. It tells a great part of who she was, but it doesn't tell a full scope of the lives that she touched, the hearts and the minds that she touched." This is not to say that the sisters weren’t wary of the filmmakers or didn’t have various concerns about being a part of a documentary that would explore the most tragic time of their lives. "Was there apprehension and hesitation at the outset? Yes," Cooper said. "Up until the point that we saw the film, I was always concerned about how it would turn out. I think it turned out extremely well because we had people who approached us with authenticity -- who were genuine. They showed a level of compassion and empathy, care and concern that quite frankly, a lot of major media outlets didn't show us on a consistent basis." (L-R) Geneva Reed-Veal, Sharon Cooper, Shavon Bland, Sierra Cole and Shante Needham attend the HBO Documentary Film "Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland" Premiere At Tribeca Film Festival |Monica Schipper/Getty Images for HBO (L-R) Geneva Reed-Veal, Sharon Cooper, Shavon Bland, Sierra Cole and Shante Needham attend the HBO Documentary Film "Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland" Premiere At Tribeca Film Festival |Monica Schipper/Getty Images for HBO Directors David and Heilbroner didn’t simply enter the sister’s lives to try and construct their own narrative about Sandra. Her family was intricately involved in shaping and framing her life and legacy in Say Her Name. "The minute you decide to participate in something of this magnitude —you participate with the knowledge that you will have some type of creative control over the process," Cooper said. "I feel like part of that was in what we shared or what we didn't share. I never felt like we were put in a position where Dave and Kate would say well, 'We absolutely need this.' I just feel like there was a level of agency that they provided us with and a level of empowerment which I appreciated. There is also a level of fairness and hearing from the other side. If it were just us, then it would feel very one-sided, and that's not the case. That’s a testament to our family in terms of how willing and open we've always been. We were determined to have an ongoing dialogue even with people in an institution that we feel is responsible for Sandy's passing. I think that the film shows a very balanced perception of what transpired." When the film debuts and Sandra Bland’s name and story are once again pushed through the news cycle, both Cooper and Needham, who have been in a constant state of grief over their sister, are bracing themselves for an entirely new wave of emotions. "You can manage of course, but you can not heal," Needham emphasized. "I want people to know this — there will never be healing when there are so many lies that have been told, so many things that have been held back from us. We can try our best to go one moment at a time," she said.   Though Cooper, Needham and their family will continue work hard to keep Sandra's legacy alive, Say Her Name: The Life & Death of Sandra Bland is also a vital component in that work. "For us, it's about doing the work and leveraging the documentary as an educational tool," Cooper emphasized. "It’s not just for communities, but also to law enforcement entities. That's really where I see us going in that regard. We do an immense amount of public speaking at the elementary, high school and collegiate level. We talk about resilience and how to pick yourself up when life throws you stuff that was not in the playbook. When I think about what's next for Sandy's story and her legacy —Sandy left very explicit instructions about things that she'd hoped to do, which we're very thrilled about. She wants to continue those conversations at a youth level because she felt like children were being forgotten about. We're not talking to our kids who are out here getting driver's licenses every single day about how to interact with the police, how to assert themselves, how to know their rights and how to make it back home to their people.” Cooper continued, “We don't want another family to have to go through this, and to that end, we need to be given access to start having conversations. Even if it's at the local level with police officers, with entities around how we change things and actions specifically as it relates to the Black community. I don't think there's anyone better equipped to have those conversations than families that are impacted by it. We're lobbying for de-escalation training. Starting at a local level, at a grassroots level, and also trying to lobby for ongoing, really substantive training as it relates to conscious and unconscious bias because I think that those two things are integral to why these things keep happening.” The HBO documentary film Say Her Name: The Life & Death of Sandra Bland debuts December 3, 2018, on HBO. READ MORE:Watch A Clip From 'Say Her Name: The Life And Death Of Sandra Bland' Here

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Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s 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 find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide 

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