Forget Tiger King: Netflix's broken criminal justice docs are just as shocking

Away from the most memed show of the year lies a vital syllabus of angry, revealing shows and films about injustice in America

For the first few weeks of quarantine, many of us were heedlessly drunk on Tiger King, the outrageous Netflix series on the wild and petty feuds between big cat owners (many would say abusers) in the US. It was commented on and memed into oblivion, having the great fortune of premiering just as most of America bristled against the second week of quarantine, itching for distraction with a sense of communal catharsis. But as the weeks dragged on, and as the fantasy of “when this is all over” melted into the recognition that we aren’t snapping back, that the breach from before is for many irrevocable, maybe it’s time to turn to the Netflix content more suited to the moment.

In corona times, a dam of corrosive evidence seems to have finally given way to a mainstream understanding that America is broken. (Of course, many people, particularly people of color, have understood the country’s brokenness for a long, long time). Much discussion in the pandemic has turned clearly and devastatingly on the wreckage of America’s broken capitalism, which makes it perhaps ironically fitting that the country’s pre-eminent streaming behemoth can offer you, in shutdown, a virtual syllabus on another of America’s long-broken machines: the criminal justice system.

I watch a lot of documentaries for my job, and while I’m by no means an expert, I’ve accumulated a sticky, patchy understanding of fractures, lies and unexpectedly fragile tethers in America’s legal system through hanging in the Netflix true crime section. I’m not talking about Netflix shock-umentaries, which are by now a genre unto themselves, in two categories: not-quite-distant retrospectives of a sensational stories (Fyre, which was directed by Tiger King executive producer Chris Smith; Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez) or outrageous, underplayed slice of America ripe for spilling out in conversation online (Tiger King; the cult of Wild, Wild Country; be-your-own-detective Making A Murderer). Those documentaries were designed to grab attention and, given Netflix’s unparalleled global reach, generate word-of-mouth popularity on social media. But a second wave of programs sees Netflix’s massive audience as an opportunity to redirect attention, with varying quality and impact, on larger, more entrenched outrages, which makes for an informal curriculum on America’s uneven, unwieldy criminal justice system.

Take some docuseries that have come out just during the shutdown. The Innocence Files, released last month in partnership with the Innocence Project, offers perhaps the best and most galling portrait of broken justice: six episodes about wrongful conviction in the United States, demonstrating all the ways cornerstones of conviction can go disastrously wrong. Forensic evidence, I learned, can be faulty if not outright junk science and still seal murder convictions; false or manipulated eyewitness testimony, known to be unreliable, still keeps people behind bars; prosecutorial misconduct, the justice system itself corrupted, often goes unpunished.

Trial By Media, out this week, takes scattershot aim at some sensational media trials from the 1980s onward, revealing how cameras in the courtroom and a 24/7 news ecosystem turn the mercurial and corrosive court of public opinion into deeply imperfect yet influential jurors.

There’s How to Fix a Drug Scandal, a series which unfolds a house of cards in Massachusetts in the early 2010s, when the transgressions of two state chemists – one high on the job in Amherst for a decade, the other who fixed results to boost her status among colleagues in Boston – invalidated tens of thousands of drug cases in the state; cases which, the series points out, were unnecessary, draconian and disproportionately affecting poor people of color to begin with. The series, in keeping with Netflix conventions, packages a sprawling story into slick episodes designed to heighten tension by chapter, sewing together interviews, old footage and dry evidence with glossy filler footage and ride-alongs with participants. It is, in other words, a solid documentary in terms of storytelling that still, by its end, offers a lesson in an under-seen yet critical element of convictions – the expert who confirms the weight and composition of seized substances – and a system oriented toward optics over justice.

Cyntoia Brown: Murder to Mercy is a problematic documentary made without Brown’s permission, but nonetheless traces the Tennessee courts’ shocking evolution from seeing Brown as a cold-blooded murderer to scared victim of sexual assault. It conveys how unforgiving and cruel criminal trials can be; in one scene of shocking court footage, a lawyer working in Brown’s defense describes her fetal alcohol syndrome so forcefully – arguing a case of damaged goods so that the court might take mercy in front of her – that she breaks down in tears.

The newer entries build on a foundation of older, most established films or series, such as Ava DuVernay’s 13th from 2016, which offered a searing indictment of America’s prison-industrial complex for black people and people of color. Dirty Money, a series created by Alex Gibney, is less on the criminal justice system specifically but certainly indicts a country in which the 1% (including and especially Jared Kushner) get away with essentially whatever they want. Time: the Kalief Browder story, a 2017 series which originally aired on Spike but is distributed by Netflix, presents a horrifying example of a shattered justice system: the story of a Bronx teen imprisoned without trial at Rikers Island for 1,000 days, often in solitary confinement, for allegedly stealing a backpack.

Of course, Netflix is not the only provider of shows taking sharper aim at systemic issues than stereotypical true crime shock-docs; HBO recently released The Scheme, nominally about money in college basketball but also about grandstanding in FBI investigations, as well as the film Ernie and Joe: Crisis Cops, on training law enforcement to respond differently to mental health crises. Showtime’s 16 Shots, on the shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, came out last year. Nor do these Netflix series give a complete portrait of injustice in America – if anything, they’re illustrative of how many planes of the justice system (state level, federal level, the labs testing your drugs) can fail. And I’m not arguing that this does the work of investigative journalism, which undergirds many of these productions, or that the tying of entertainment with people’s most crushing devastations isn’t on some level always going to be ethically fraught. But you could do worse than use your streaming time to crawl through bits of a system which for many Americans – or at least many white Americans, especially white Americans on their couch in suburbia or relatively spacious apartments – can seem opaque and faraway, vaguely but not viscerally problematic.

Remarkably, for all the scenes of brokenness, most of these shows find reasons for hope – in redemption, in persistence, in faith that even if it takes years, the truth wins out. The best ones, such as the Innocence Files, offer clear proposals for change and portraits of people fighting for them. These aren’t the most meme-able or explosive lessons, but for a massive, stir-crazy streaming audience, especially these days, they’re good ones to hold on to.


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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