Sandra Bland Say Her Name HBO
Kate Davis / Courtesy of HBO

Sandra Bland's Life & Death: The Making Of HBO's Haunting Documentary, 'Say Her Name'

The directors and Bland family share how the film came together and their hopes for those who watch.

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.”

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P Diddy promotes his new Diddy Dirty Money single 'Coming Home' and his headphones DiddyBeats at HMV, Oxford Street on January 20, 2011 in London, England.
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'The Last Train To Paris' Turns 10: Revisit Diddy's Aug./Sept. 2010 VIBE Cover Story

YOU EVER WATCH a control freak mellow out? It’s fascinating. When said micromanager is Sean “Puffy” Combs, it’s an enlightening ordeal altogether. Sitting at trendy Asian eatery Philippe Chow in New York City, two days before LeBron James announces that he’s taking his show to South Beach, Combs has talking points: impact and legacy. “This ain’t a regular run,” says Combs of his two-decade laundry list of accomplishments. “I’m saying that in the most humble way possible. I’m me and I’m seeing it. Most times the impact of what you do you don’t even live to see it.”

He’s the only patron seated for the evening, lounging at a table that comfortably seats eight. This is clearly a Sean John zone. His voice remains even, but the arrogance skyrockets. “It trickles over into sports. It goes into the way the free agent negotiations are going. [Athletes] have that belief. But that level of confidence as Black businessmen wasn’t really there. Unforgivable swagger. That shit wasn’t there.”

Translation: Sean believes that his ambition has been infectious. In his “humble” opinion, his drive has taught the have-nots that not only can they have, but they can be gluttonous and acquire wealth rather than riches. Will it ruin his day if people don’t agree? Not really. But he’d still like the legacy to be accurately documented. His reactionary reflexes have given way to him thinking long term, which could be why he’s unfazed by trivial shots like 50 Cent’s claims of having nude pictures of his artist Cassie. He’s more interested in guiding careers—Rick Ross, Red Cafe and Dirty Money, among them. And really, he’d like to do square biz and have your kids’ kids respect him like his contemporaries admire Warren Buffet. That would truly be money in the bank. In the meantime, he wants to mellow with a plate of chicken satay and talk Diddy legacy.

VIBE: You have said that rap’s heavyweight class consisted of Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Drake. Do you still believe that?

Diddy: Definitely. I feel like Drake is somebody that entered professionally in the heavyweight division. He didn’t come in as a middleweight, he didn’t come in as a light heavyweight, he came in as a heavyweight. He’s gonna be a force to be reckoned with for a while. He is the definition of a new age musical rapper . . . going forward a lot of rap artists are going to have [singing and rapping] in their repertoire.

What’s the ranking in that heavyweight division?

Jay, Kanye, Wayne, and Drake.

Jay still No. 1?

Hands down as far as worldwide impact and due to this last album [The Blueprint 3]. He’s moved up in the rankings.

People don’t realize that you two are friends and not just industry acquaintances.

Over the years as we’ve grown, Jay and I have needed each other. We’ve needed to be able to pick up the phone and call somebody that can understand what each other was going through. We needed each other to motivate each other; we needed each other to push each other. We needed each other to support each other and also to challenge each other. He’s definitely been a great friend to me. There’s never been anything that I’ve asked him to do or he’s asked me to do that we really haven’t done for each other.

Give an example of when you had to pick up the phone and call Jay for assistance.

I wanted to do something game-changing with Sean John. And I just picked his brain. I did [a fashion line] before him but I think that business-wise he did a lot of things better than me. He picked the right time to get out and get his check, to sell his company. We sat on the phone and talked about itŃput our egos in our pockets. I didn’t see Sean John versus Roc-A-Wear. I just saw that my man over here is doing it [and I had] a couple of offers for Sean John. It was a beautiful conversation, ‘cause we’re sitting down at this restaurant and we’re talking about apparel. We’re not talking about music. It was a beautiful moment. Two quarter-of-a-billion dollar companies—just getting advice from your competitor. It was something that you heard rich White boys do.

Dr. Dre said that the last beat that floored him was “All About the Benjamins.” How does that make you feel?

It’s humbling. I was in the studio with Dre the other day. He started working on a record for me. Watching him as a producer is watching greatness. We had a lot of similar traits. It was like looking in the mirror. He would ask questions like, “How you feel about this?” People don’t really understand true producers want to know how you feel about things. We are some of the most observant people on the planet.

You’re a lot more into the music now than the last time we spoke.

I was waiting to get a lot of inspiration from the outside and it just wasn’t coming. And I’m not knocking anyone’s hustle that’s out there. I just come from musical history that musically people gave more of themselves . . . I was able to go back and listen to all the great records that I made. I ain’t do it on purpose. Like sometimes I’d be in a club and the DJ was just throwing tributes and would go deep in the crates. I would be like, “Damn, I forgot that I made that one.” It just gave me a deep connection and another level of confidence for me to do me.

Are you feeling more comfortable writing on your own?

Yeah. I learned a lot more. I feel a lot more confident and free. On this album, I wrote like maybe two or three records by myself. But I still like writing with somebody. It helps me. Not using it as a crutch, but I get better results from co-writing; having my own feelings and thoughts, and, you know, getting some help with it. I love the feeling of collaboration, community in the studio. I don’t like being the mad scientist and being in the room by myself.

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Desus & Mero Bless A Bronx Bodega With A Year's Worth of Rent

You know them as the hosts of the hit Showtime series Desus & Mero, aka "the greatest show in late-night history, featuring only illustrious guests." These days you might catch them chatting with President Obama, but  Bronx natives Desus Nice and The Kid Mero have never lost touch with their roots as the Bodega Boys.

"On our first podcast me and Mero used to have to ride the train back afterward," recalls Desus. "And basically our conversation on the train sounded exactly like the podcast. And somebody was like, 'Yo, they sound like two guys you hear in the bodega.' Which was true, because when you hear guys in the bodega, they talk very passionately about things. They may not have all the facts, but they're talking with their hearts."

"Their confidence is strong!" adds Mero with a laugh.

"That's just us," says Desus. "We're raised in bodegas. Probably 90 percent of the food we grew up eating was either our mother's cooking or chopped cheese sandwiches."

"Facts," Mero confirms.

Ever since the pandemic hit, New York City's community bodegas have served as a lifeline by providing New Yorkers with daily necessities, especially in neighborhoods where door-to-door gourmet food delivery is not an option. But staying open hasn't been easy—the daily risks of doing business under threat from a deadly virus—not to mention a spike in robberies and violence—has made running a bodega very challenging, to say the least. But day in day out, in good times and bad, they find a way to keep their doors open.

"If your block is the solar system, the bodega is the sun," says Mero. "The hood orbits the bodega."

So when the makers of Pepsi cola decided to give back on the bodega owners who provide life-giving sustenance and ice-cold soda to NYC's five boroughs, they reached out to the Bodega Boys as their official goodwill ambassadors. Today Desus & Mero appear in a short film called The Bodega Giveback, which highlights the way one Bronx bodega overcame extreme hardship—and the way Pepsi is helping them keep going after 2020 comes to an end.

For Juan Valerio and his son Jefferson, the proprietors of JJN Corp Deli & Grocery in the Bronx, 2020 has been a horrible year. Juan still remembers when he came to America with his father in 1990. "To buy a bodega at that time was well over $100,000," Juan recalls in the short film, which you can watch above. "It was a dream that seemed unreachable. I never thought I would achieve it. And now this is what I do. My whole life is here."

Then in April 2020, tragedy struck when Juan's father lost his life to COVID 19. For the first time in three decades, the bodega had to close its doors down briefly. "It’s something very powerful to lose what you love the most in a split second," Juan recalls with emotion as his son comforts him with a hug. "Life goes on. And I decided to come back because he always taught me to work. To stay closed was disrespectful to him."

"He had to shut down for a little bit," says Desus. "But then he reopened cause the community needed him. Cause the lockdown a lot of stores closed down. And in the Bronx, you can't really get stuff delivered. And he's the hub. We heard stories of what he did, so we were like, how can we give back to him? Shout out to Pepsi with the Bodega Giveback. And just giving him a year's rent—that's the most amazing thing you can give a bodega owner. Shout out to Juan and his son. The look on their face when they really get it—you see the appreciation."

"It really hit home," said Mero. "Cause it's like, we're children of immigrants. So that could have been us—if we didn't get seen by the right people and put in the right positions, we coulda been workin' alongside our dad at a bodega. And then watchin' your grandfather pass away and then comin' back because you know how important you are to the community. Like, that's really selfless. It's just a dope story. And those stories occur all over the place, it's just people don't see them. Cause they don't get exposed on a national level. But a brand like Pepsi can put that on a national stage and be like,  "Yo, look—this is a mom and pop establishment for real. And these are the small businesses that you supposed to be supporting."

The release of The Bodega Giveback kicks off a larger holiday giveback from Pepsi this season that includes cash gifts to bodega owners and consumers across NYC's five boroughs.  “Pepsi has so many longstanding bodega partners in New York City,” said Umi Patel, CMO of North Division, PepsiCo Beverages North America. “They are not only pillars of the community, but they have gone above and beyond to take care of their loyal customers during the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic. They have worked around the clock to stay open, filling shelves to ensure their customers, friends, and family have the essentials they need to stay home and stay safe. They have even shifted their businesses to meet the needs of the community, offering new delivery options, adding crucial items like masks and gloves, and more, all while dealing with their own personal challenges of the pandemic. We are proud to do our part in giving back to these unsung heroes.”

From now until December 20, Pepsi will also be surprising customers at local bodegas across the five boroughs by gifting pre-paid credit cards of up to $100.00 per customer.

As Juan says in the film, "one hand washes the other, and with both, we wash our face."

Check out our full convo with Desus & Mero above and the short film, The Bodega Giveback.

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Courtesy of Level.com

Level Announces Their 'Best Man 2020 Awards' Featuring Entertainment Elite to Everyday Kings

It is a hard feat for media brands to survive the content landscape these days. To pull off the incredible undertaking of informing an audience as a new publication in the digital space is damn near impossible, yet the team at Medium's Level has done just that. To celebrate making their mark as a one-stop information shop for black men with their one-year anniversary this week, the team of bright and witty editors has launched their first annual Best Man Awards 2020.

The plan to honor the brand that started in December of 2019, focused on the interests of African-American males, has expanded into encompassing the efforts of a few good men during this mess of a year that is 2020. In doing so, those that broke through barriers of personal pain, new business frontiers, and support of others are highlighted and given the rightful pedestals to gain well-deserved props.

Of the 12 awards, esteemed gents like Swizz Beatz, Timbaland, and D-Nice are saluted as Quarantine Kings for their Verzuz and Club Quarantine (respectively) social media music creations that entertained the masses during the dogged days of our universal shut-down. There is also a heroic soul of a man who protected a black woman and her family from the surrounding presence of racist neighbors on his own time and dime. They have an award for Father of the Year, where former NBA all-star and champion, Dwyane Wade shines as a glowing example of understanding and ushering in new ways of parenting in today's society.

With the awards being a noble move towards giving Black men some much-needed praise in 2020, Level made sure to round up the last 365 days with themes on "The State of Black and Brown Men" as well. Essays that cover the realms of political ideology, coping with covid among Blacks health care workers,  how Black men fell short of protecting Black women, and exploring what Black men see when they look in the mirror (a piece that is a user-generated content driver/audience-led convo). All hard topics that need to be detailed, yet are rarely in a space for deep-dive convo.

Helmed by former VIBE editor-in-chief, Jermaine Hall, Level's editors explain their thoughts on the special coverage and celebration of their one year old brand:

“With the Best Man Awards, we wanted to lean into people who are doing incredible things to support society and publicly thank them. Anthony Herron, Jr is a hero. He stepped up to protect someone he didn’t know because, as he saw it, harassment is unacceptable. LEVEL wanted to make sure he received a nod for his heroics. But there are also several celebrities who are doing things outside of their jobs. D-Nice, Swizz, and Timbaland helped us cope through music. And it wasn’t a paid gig for any of them. They responded because people needed help healing so they provided care. That’s a strong attribute of the LEVEL man. It’s certainly is the definition of men being their best selves."

Click here to read about these individuals and learn more about the Best Man Awards 2020. Excelsior to Level.

 

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