Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story is a documentary film about, as you might have guessed, Cyntoia Brown. At age 16, she was arrested, charged, and found guilty of murdering a man named Johnny Allen, which she claimed was in self-defence.
This was in 2004, and throughout the trial, you hear her described as a prostitute, not a victim of child sex trafficking. She was sentenced to life in prison, with the possibility of parole in 51 years.
By the end of the documentary, in 2019, Brown’s sentence was commuted to 15 years and she was released in August, 2019. Since her release Brown has worked tirelessly on social justice campaigns specifically around child sex trafficking.
Prior to the documentary’s debut, Brown released a statement on social media saying that she had nothing to do with the Netflix documentary. The footage used by filmmaker Daniel H Birman mostly comes from his first documentary about Brown, Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story.
When a documentary is released to Netflix, viewers have begun to expect certain things, like high quality graphics, expert commentary, and most of all a strong opinion or voice – someone, whether it’s the documentarian or the subject, is trying to say something important. Yet, Murder to Mercy – despite having such a vocal subject, Cyntoia herself – missed the opportunity to say something important.
Murder to Mercy feels like a documentary from fifteen years ago. It faithfully follows the story of its subject, examining her life through past interviews with her, as well as her family.
We hear from Cyntoia through both interviews and public footage from her trials. We see her legal team, the team fighting to keep her imprisoned, and the friends who survived the victim, Johnny Allen.
But there is little to no narrative framing, no wider condemnation of a system that is built not for finding justice but following the letter of the law, even when that law ignores any mitigating context. Murder to Mercy had the chance to make a point about the conversation around sex work and child sex trafficking.
Instead, it simply laid out the facts and let us decide. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, it’s literally what a documentary is.
Some might say that taking a specific stance against (or for) something undermines what a documentary is meant to do, which is simply tell a true story. However, documentaries in the last five years have become more than just vehicles for truth, they’ve become tools through which we view our past and our future.
Documentaries today are used to challenge preconceived notions about what is right or wrong, and when they are at their best they cause the viewer to reevaluate preexisting beliefs. Murder to Mercy doesn’t do this, it just tells the story.
Brown’s story is in and of itself an indictment of many systems and paradigms of thought, but Birman fails to address them by not giving any one person or opinion more weight than another. No one is challenged, or asked a question, except by the other people in the room at the time (and even then, it was usually part of contemporaneous trial testimony).
For example, the fact that even minors charged with murder have to wait 51 years for parole to even be considered seems extraordinarily long. We know that Brown is now campaigning to have this changed, but the documentary offers no commentary on that Tennessee law, not from Brown, her legal team, penal system experts, or anyone else involved.
Other documentaries, like Three Identical Strangers and The Pharmacist take archival footage and contextualise it in the present day, whether through expert commentary or contemporary interviews with the subjects themselves.
Murder to Mercy didn’t offer this. Perhaps this was down to the fact that Brown didn’t have anything to do with the documentary – though Birman did have contemporary interviews with her family, she was not present.
Brown’s valuable hindsight and understanding are limited to her own statement during her clemency hearing, but that had its own purpose – to get her sentence commuted.
Birman could have used the documentary to go one step further and shed light on wider, systematic issues and injustices. Instead, he offered us a documentary with the sensibilities of 10 years ago, a story without a framework, reflection, or commentary.
Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story is now available to stream on Netflix
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