“They took my child from me—just snatched him off the street.” That’s Venida Browder, mother of Kalief Browder. Her 16-year-old son had been accused by another person of stealing a backpack, and she didn’t have the $900 bond to get him out of jail.
So Kalief was held at Rikers Island in New York City.
For three years.
He spent two years in solitary confinement. Prosecutors never had a case and kept delaying a trial.
He was eventually, finally released and charges were dropped because there was no evidence or case against him. Shortly after getting out, Kalief killed himself.
How all of that happened is the subject of Spike’s new series Time: The Kalief Browder Story (Wednesdays at 10).
The series, directed by Jenner Furst and produced by Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, goes beyond those headlines and into his story and the criminal justice system. At the Television Critics Association winter press tour, Jenner Furst told journalists,
“When we embarked on this project, we knew that there was so much more to the story than had been reported. It’s nearly impossible for the evening news or a magazine article to tackle the wide expanse of information and the implications that a story like this has, both from the family’s perspective and from just looking taking a look at our criminal justice system. … There was much more to the story and that America needed to see this is in an unabridged version.”
Their unabridged version cuts between original and archival interviews; archival footage from unrelated events, such as kids playing football on the street; reenactments; and sometimes cinema verite footage. There’s horrifying footage of the violence that occurs inside the prison from surveillance cameras.
It’s not always clear what we’re watching—if this is Kalief or not, if these are actors or not. That’s a problem for a documentary reality series.
And the first episode, especially, jumps between those different devices and points in time, so it’s not as easy to follow or as immediately engaging as The Jinx or Making a Murderer, which now stand as the best in the genre. I was interested but wanted to be pulled in to the story more, and the visual and narrative choices didn’t really allow that.
But by the end of the first episode, I was hooked, and was convinced that this is a story that’s both compelling and important. Last year, Barack Obama cited Kalief when announced he was “banning solitary confinement for juveniles and as a response to low-level infractions, expanding treatment for the mentally ill and increasing the amount of time inmates in solitary can spend outside of their cells.”
When Kalief says in an interview, “I lost my childhood. I lost my happiness,” that seems like an understatement.
And Time: The Kalief Browder Story makes it clear that he also lost his life because of the system that we imagine is just for bad people but that damages people—sometimes innocent people, or people who just can’t afford a few hundred dollars—beyond repair.