Sandra Bland's Life & Death: The Making Of HBO's Haunting Documentary, 'Say Her Name'
The opening scene of HBO’s new documentary about Sandra Bland is so eerily prophetic; it feels almost as if she is speaking to us from the afterlife. Looking directly through the screen, during a video blog we soon find out was actually recorded roughly three months before her death, she addresses her “beautiful kings and queens,” as well as another particular group: white people. “We can’t help but get pissed off when we see situations where it’s clear that black life didn’t matter,” Bland says. “Because in the news that we’ve seen as of late, you could stand there, surrender to the cops, and still be killed.”
The tragic irony in her words is the subject of the film, Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, which premiered on the cable network on Monday (Dec 3). Directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner began following Bland’s family and lawyer just 10 days after her July 2015 death in a Waller County, Texas, jail cell, where the 28-year-old was found hanging from a noose made from a trash bag. The circumstances of her death, mysterious given a lack of video footage, falsified jail logs, and the family’s insistence that she would have not killed herself — as well as the unnecessary violence used by a state trooper in her arrest over a routine traffic stop — sparked national outcry and protests. Despite the overwhelming grief, Bland’s family felt compelled to participate in the film after a bit of convincing from Davis and Heilbroner, Bland’s sister, Sharon Cooper, tells VIBE.
“It had become clear to us that if we didn’t consistently speak and share our truth, then we ran the risk of somebody else telling our story for us,” Cooper says, adding that she feels the film shows “who Sandy was as a person” and doesn’t “shroud the entire film in her death.”
Bland’s video blogs, a series she dubbed “Sandy Speaks,” featured at various points throughout the film, are a crucial element of that view, according to the family and filmmakers. Bland is frequently seen speaking directly to the camera, just as in the beginning, discussing topics on racial injustices prevalent in society today. Heilbroner tells VIBE that this digital footprint, which Bland would post for her followers on Facebook, put him and Davis in a unique position when it came to structuring the documentary.
“It hit us as filmmakers to weave [Sandra] into the film as a narrator of her own story because the subject of those blogs spoke directly to the forces that brought her down,” he says. “It was extremely eerie... the film has a sort of ghostly presence of Sandra throughout. Once we got to know [the family] and got to know her, we became excited because she was such a compelling human being. She set the bar for us in terms of the message we wanted the film to deliver.”
Over the course of two years, Heilbroner and Davis tracked Bland’s case with acute detail, taking viewers behind the scenes of legal meetings, autopsy examinations and emotional moments within the Bland family home. Dashcam footage taken from the police vehicle of state trooper Brian Encinia shows a forceful confrontation between him and Bland when he pulled her over for failing to signal a lane change just outside of Prairie View A&M University, her alma mater. Apparently unhappy with Bland’s refusal to put out her cigarette, Encinia is shown threatening to drag Bland out of the car and “light [her] up” with a Taser, prompting further protest from Bland. Video taken from a bystander then shows Bland on the ground in handcuffs with Encinia and another officer standing over her. “I can’t even f**kin’ feel my arm… You just slammed my head into the ground. Do you not even care about that?” Bland is heard yelling in distress.
The film features interviews with Texas law enforcement officials, namely Waller County sheriff R. Glenn Smith and the county’s district attorney, Elton Mathis. State trooper Encinia, who was later fired from his post but cleared of a perjury charge, does not speak in the film himself. Davis says that while she and Heilbroner undoubtedly went in with “strong feelings” about the case, they felt it was important to present as unbiased of a view as possible. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the officials agreed to speak on camera.
“We said, look, this is your chance to tell your side,” Davis says. “We’re not out to skewer you, we’re going to give you a fair chance and let people choose for themselves.” It was also, she says, a chance for them to reflect on choices that were made leading up to Bland’s death. “To think for themselves about where their faults lie, where mistakes were made, why mistakes were made.” Sheriff Smith towards the end of the film admits that while he sees no fault in the legal proceedings of the jail staff, he “absolutely” believes authorities present failed when it came to the “moral responsibility” of checking in on Bland regularly, as required for solitary confinement inmates. “To a certain extent,” Davis says, “They were accounting for their behavior openly and honestly.”
“What they did do a very good job of,” Cooper says, “is showing how ineffective they were at doing their job. Showing there was an immense lack of accountability that they took at the time.” Though the family eventually settled a wrongful death lawsuit for $1.9 million and a promise of jail reform and police de-escalation training under the Sandra Bland Act, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, is filmed saying she doesn’t believe her daughter committed suicide despite a lengthy period of investigation. Asked more than three years after her sister’s death whether she believes Bland was murdered at the hands of law enforcement, Cooper says she simply does not know.
“I operate in finite terms. And I think that is something that’s elevated when you’re trying to land on the law of your loved one,” she says. “And when the things that you have been told are not in alignment with what has been presented before you, it leaves you in a state of uncertainty. And that’s where I’ve been, and that’s where we’ve been collectively as a family.”
What Cooper is sure of, however, is her sister’s role in expanding the conversation around police brutality victims to include black women and girls along with black men and boys who were covered more prominently by the media. In the wake of Bland’s death, the Say Her Name movement went viral, and many observers pointed out that it appeared to be the first time a black woman victim of police brutality garnered such attention from the mainstream press.
“It awakened the rage, it elevated it because black women have been pissed off on behalf of black men for quite some time, hence the Black Lives Matter movement being started by three black women,” Cooper says. “So at the end of the day, you have a woman who was unapologetic in what she believed, and in some shape or fashion or form was essentially cut down for that. You had sisters who were elevating their voices because there was a level of relatability between Sandra and the person who felt like it very well could’ve been them. They saw themselves in her.”
Asked whether they anticipated Bland’s story would become national news, Davis says that her and Heilbroner “were aware that Sandy was arguably the first female victim of police brutality who became highly recognized. There was a gender aspect that was interesting.”
With the film having premiered earlier this week, it’s Davis and Heilbroner’s hope that viewers will understand Bland’s vision for society, discussed throughout her Sandy Speaks clips. Additionally, Heilbroner says, “I’d like the film to stand for a kind of documentary that is not just a polemic thing and a one-sided account.
“I’d like to hope it stands for a film that makes you think and makes you think about yourself, and people think about their implicit biases and potential for racist reactions,” he adds. “If we could get people to look at themselves and have a more subtle discourse about race in this country, that would be amazing.”
As for the family, Cooper says they hope audiences will get a better picture of Bland “beyond the headlines” that were previously reported. “There is a need for people to unearth humanity,” she says, and that it’s important for black communities watching to see what happens to victims’ families after the initial trauma. “We don’t take a moment to step back and think about the cascading impact and the domino effect that that fatal encounter had on that person’s loved ones.”
“I know that it feels like we’re in a hopeless and dire situation in our country right now because of this polarizing environment that we’re in, but at some point, we have to find a way to bridge this chasm that continues to widen on the daily basis,” Cooper adds. “It’s our hope that this [film] will be the continuation of a conversation that truly needs to be had around the very real work that needs to be done from the criminal justice reform perspective.”