At 16, Cyntoia Brown Long (formerly Cyntoia Brown) was tried as an adult and handed a life sentence for shooting and killing Johnny Michael Allen—in self-defense, she insisted—an adult who had solicited her for sex after her pimp sent her out one evening to make money. Last year, Brown’s story became a national sensation, resulting in the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown, after celebrities including Rihanna and Kim Kardashian caught on to the extreme circumstances of her incarceration as a victim of what would be understood today as child sex-trafficking. Instead of serving out her 51-years-to-life sentence, in 2017, then-Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted Brown clemency at 15 years served, with 10 years of probation. As of Aug. 7, 2019, Brown has been a free woman. But arriving right on time from Netflix and into the streaming wars’ true crime competition, the circumstances around the unauthorized documentary, Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story, give pause.
In 2011, documentary film producer and director Daniel Birman’s film Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story aired on PBS Lens. That documentary contains much of the same story that Murder to Mercy tells, as well as the same footage. That is because Birman, who sold Murder to Mercy to Netflix without Brown Long’s knowledge, repurposed huge swaths of Me Facing Life for the Netflix film. What results is a cut-and-paste job with additional footage of the events leading up to Brown Long’s release in 2019—all while she was still in jail.
On April 15, Brown Long released a statement on Twitter explaining her lack of involvement in or prior knowledge about Murder to Mercy, as well as her own plans for a project about her experiences during and after incarceration (perhaps drawn from her book Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System). About the film’s April 26 release, Brown Long explained, “My husband and I were as surprised as everyone else when we first heard the news because we did not participate in any way.” In the comments beneath the thread, former students at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, where Birman teaches, expressed their own lack of surprise about the film’s shady circumstances. (A representative for Netflix told me that Brown Long will now be promoting her book along with the Netflix film “in an exclusive interview”; her tweet criticizing the film has since been deleted.)
Brionna Taylor, a USC Annenberg graduate student in journalism tweeted in response to Brown Long’s statement, “Wow! The producer was my documentary professor last year. I’m not surprised and this makes sooo much sense!!!” In response to someone asking who the producer is, journalist and USC grad Claire Heddles explained, “[H]e’s a professor @USCAnnenberg, where multiple students have filed complaints about the way he mistreats students and their work too.” Then, former student and documentary filmmaker, Tracii McGregor, chimed in to share her own experience with Birman: “I went back to grad school at 48 to study doc[umentary film] under Birman. I was his biggest fan. But when I couldn’t be controlled he turned on me. Tried to disparage my name and squash my dreams by telling me I didn’t have what it takes!” (The Daily Beast reached out to Birman, Taylor, Heddles, and McGregor, and as of publication has not received responses.)
A faculty member at USC told me that “what is being asserted in terms of the complaints [against Professor Birman] just isn’t inaccurate” with no further detail. (As of publication, The Daily Beast is still awaiting official responses from USC Annenberg and Netflix; this piece will be updated when they are received.)
Unauthorized documentaries are not necessarily exploitative in nature, but Murder for Mercy presents a rote and often paternalistic narrative of Brown’s circumstances, relying heavily on the formally stronger Me Facing Life for insight into Brown Long as a person as well as the systemic and intergenerational racism, misogyny, and classism that hovers around much of her experience. After receiving an associate’s and bachelor’s degree from Lipscomb University while incarcerated, Brown Long is now an advocate for prison reform. But rather than dig more deeply into Brown Long’s current understanding of her past, present, and future as a free woman, Birman’s Murder to Mercy continues to pathologize her, ultimately reinforcing unexamined ideas about personal responsibility and individual brokenness.
In Birman’s methodology we see Brown Long made legible to those whom black history scholar Saidiya Hartman has identified as the social reformers and charity workers who were interested in instilling a kind of puritanical respectability in their subjects of study. In an excerpt of her seminal book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments—explaining the photographs taken by these white reformers of young black girls and women living in urban ghettos at the turn of the century—Hartman writes, “Social reformers targeted interracial intimacy or even proximity; the girl problem and the Negro problem reared their heads at the same time and found a common target in the sexual freedom of young women, who were often arrested or confined.” Brown Long’s biological mother is white, though Brown Long herself is black, as is her adoptive mother, Ellenette Brown, with whom she’s has had an enduringly strong relationship, even and especially in the midst of Brown Long’s troubles. The white reformist gaze is ever-present in Murder to Mercy, and turns the viewer away from any point of connection with Brown Long as well as any understanding of the world she or her mother came of age in. Instead, we get staid portraits of “the girl problem and the Negro problem”: the laundry list of troubles, the unfiltered interviews on the dilapidated front porch, the repudiation of that old life, the cries for redemption.
This kind of narrative makes for lucrative Netflix fodder, and the opportunism in Murder for Mercy wearily comes through, with its many white professional talking heads, from the doctors to the prosecutors even to the defense lawyers, condemning not only Brown Long’s upbringing, but her origins: her poor white biological mother who was also sex-trafficked as a child as well as her poor white biological grandmother, who also appears in the documentary and speaks about how the brutal rape she experienced as a young woman is inscribed in the rest of her family line (grandma even speaks wistfully of a self-eugenics; if only she could’ve discovered her mental illness at 16 and had a hysterectomy, she says).
“White people of all class backgrounds tend to express fatigue or anger at hearing about this history and reality…”
The film never examines any part of what kept Brown Long (or her adoptive and biological mothers) alive before, during, and after her incarceration, except for brief glimpses into her relationship with her adoptive mother Ellenette, which we get during a harrowing trial cross-examination. But in the one-on-one interviews in the film, Ellenette is asked to serve more as reporter than as mother. Me Facing Life at least allowed us to momentarily look into Brown Long’s and Ellenette’s regular visits and see love pass between them; Murder for Mercy simply inserts their maternal bond into a diagnostic of “nice try, but not enough.”
Of course, the script for Murder to Mercy is also that of our dominant society, the white-supremacist rendering of the world that girls and women like Brown Long and her mothers and foremothers have inhabited for centuries, since the first slaves were dragged from the coast of West Africa to the colonies. White people of all class backgrounds tend to express fatigue or anger at hearing about this history and reality, as if they have had to hear it nearly as much as poor black women have had to hear about their brokenness. Well, enough.
There’s no guarantee that Brown Long’s own film project will be better, or that any black woman filmmaker would categorically make worthy work of such a subject. But let’s hope that going forward, those who do make an attempt engage seriously with the century-plus of black scholarship, writing, and thinking available—not only from the academies but also from the ghettos, fields, prisons, and institutions—that neither scorns nor romanticizes our troubles, but honors our lives.