Sandra Bland: behind a poignant documentary of her life and death

In Say Her Name, the tragic death of a woman stopped by police in 2015 is examined with troubling and frustrating results

It wasn’t always easy for Shante Needham to have cameras following her and her family through some of the rawest, most challenging trials of their lives.

“Honestly, it was a bit much at times, especially when I was having a down day,” she told the Guardian.

It was 2015 and Needham’s sister Sandra Bland had just been found dead in her jail cell in Waller county, Texas, after having been arrested during a routine traffic stop. In the midst of the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, questions about Bland’s arrest and death had quickly begun to draw headlines and steer conversations about the ways black women were subjected to police violence – popularizing the refrain “say her name”.

In the early moments following her death, film-makers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner contacted Bland’s family and asked to follow their fight to learn exactly what had occurred to the outspoken 28-year-old they all knew as Sandy. The ensuing two-year odyssey of surveillance videos, autopsies, lawsuits and protests were captured in the HBO documentary film Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland.

While the film doesn’t decisively answer the case’s biggest outstanding question – whether there was foul play involved in Bland’s apparent suicide – the film settles on a harsh indictment of the criminal justice system in which Bland became ensnared.

“Whether someone came in her cell and killed her with their bare hands, or whether she was just roughed up, abused and left in solitary confinement under conditions which drove her into despair – it is the job of the government to take care of inmates, and Sandra should be here now,” said Heilbroner.

And whatever reservations Needham had in the moment are certainly gone now, calling it necessary for telling Sandy’s story, but she adds not to expect a neatly packaged conclusion. “It doesn’t have a Hollywood ending,” she said. “It doesn’t have a happy ending that ties everything up in a neat bow.”

In July of 2015, Bland had recently moved from Illinois to Texas to start a job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University, near Houston, when a Texas state trooper, Brian Encinia, pulled her over near the campus for failing to signal a lane change. Dashcam video shows the stop quickly escalate into a verbal and then physical confrontation.

Apparently angered by Bland’s refusal to put out a cigarette, Encinia threatened to drag her out of the car and “light [her] up” with a Taser. They walk off camera, then Bland is seen with her wrists behind her back. “You’re about to break my wrist, stop,” she screamed, “you’re a real man now, you just slammed me, knocked my head into the ground, I got epilepsy.”

She was arrested on suspicion of assault and taken to the Waller county jail. Three days later she was found dead in her cell, hanged by a plastic trash bag from a receptacle that was left in the cell.

Conspiracy theories circulated after Bland’s death that she was killed by law enforcement officers, but were widely discredited at the time, and in the film. It was concluded, however, that jail officials fabricated records of a check that was supposed to be made on Bland’s wellbeing, and it was gaps in accountability like this that continued to fuel suspicion.

Encinia was indicted for perjury in 2015 after lying to a grand jury about the stop. In June 2017, the charges against Encinia were dropped in exchange for Encinia surrendering his Texas law enforcement license, meaning that no one was ever held criminally liable for Bland’s death, or her arrest, which many experts have concluded may have been illegal. In 2016, Bland’s family settled a wrongful-death lawsuit for $1.9m.

Needham said even to this day she is “absolutely not” sure about what happened in that central Texas jail cell. “Due to their lack of information we will never know, and that’s what makes it that much harder for us to grieve properly,” she said.

Protest at Washington Square Park, New York.
Protest at Washington Square Park, New York. Photograph: Albin Lohr Jones / Courtesy of HBO

The film relies heavily on surveillance footage from the jail, the dash camera and other archival material – but interviews tell much of the story. Besides those from Bland’s attorney, family and friends, Say Her Name features interviews with Sheriff Glenn Smith who oversaw the jail, and the district attorney, Elton Mathis, who was in charge of determining if any laws were broken in Bland’s death.

That was important for the sake of telling both sides of the story, but for Bland’s sister Sharon Cooper, it was revealing as well. “I don’t believe it was their intention, but quite frankly I think that they did a good job of showing their missteps along the way,” she said. Near the film’s end, the sheriff remains defiant that his office did nothing legally wrong, but concedes that as a matter of “moral responsibility” the jail failed Bland and her family. Cooper and Needham said that was the closest thing they ever got to an apology or admission of wrongdoing.

The most valuable asset Davis and Heilbroner had in telling Bland’s story, and especially in fleshing her out beyond the events of her arrest and death – is Sandra herself. She opens and closes the film speaking directly to the camera in footage from her “Sandy Speaks” video blog where she would tackle issues of racism and mental health, or sometimes just offer viewers an inspiring message for their day.

“Sandy left a vivid video record of herself addressing the very issues that brought her down,” Heilbroner said. “It’s eerie, and it was prophetic and inspiring for us as film-makers. She was so articulate and so intelligent that she helped raise the level of dialogue woven into the film’s fabric.”

A husband and wife production team, Davis and Heilbroner have focused on criminal justice issues in many of their projects, including the Peabody award-winning film The Newburgh Sting. Heilbroner himself is a former New York City prosecutor and said that background probably helped them in getting access to the officials who spoke with them in the film.

Davis said she hoped that the film will be “a catalyst for discussion and maybe incentivize [law enforcement] into treating people more as human beings and not as a chance for you to flex one’s power muscles.”

As for Bland’s family, they want the film to push people to continue to “say her name” and organize around issues of police brutality and injustice, especially now that national attention has been diffused into so many other directions.

“The shift in the news cycle and the turn to the divisive rhetoric that’s going on in this country, I think, without a shadow of a doubt, is amplifying the problem in the sense that no one’s talking about it, said Cooper. “It’s almost become the expectation and that’s really hurtful.”

  • Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland premieres on HBO on 3 December with a UK date yet to be announced


Jamiles Lartey

The GuardianTramp

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