There’s a surfeit of documentaries and docuseries on Netflix that join in with detective and crime dramas more generally to marshall ideological support for the police system and ‘normalise injustice‘. But that’s not all that is out there. For instance, Amber Ruffin has been sharing of a her encounters with police on Late Night with Seth Meyers, which has been playing them in lieu of the usual comic monologue. (And I hope this takes you all into an Amber Ruffin YouTube k-hole, which is a good place to be.)
Kristen Fuhs (Woodbury University) provides a list of documentaries that one can watch to gain a better understanding of the intersection of race, policing, and miscarriages of justice in the U.S.
Documentaries about Race and Policing in the U.S.
This past week, we’ve been inundated with articles in the popular press about what we should be reading and watching now to better understand racism in the United States. These lists generally offer good (if repetitive) suggestions when it comes to documentary – though I’m certainly in agreement that 13th, I Am Not Your Negro, Whose Streets, and The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975 all constitute excellent starting points for thinking about race and America. But as protests continue, as police persist in treating peaceful demonstrators as enemy combatants, as armored Humvees roll down the streets near my neighborhood, as viral videos circulate that document terrifying instances of police violence, and as calls to “defund the police” gain momentum, I’d like to offer you a themed playlist of the documentary films I think we should all be watching next in order to gain a better understanding about the critical intersections between race, policing, and miscarried justice in my country.
There is a long history of documenting the failures of the US justice system in nonfiction film. We may look to films like The Thin Blue Line, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, and the more recent Making a Murderer as popular touchstones of the documentary true-crime genre, but there are a number of excellent true-crime documentaries that (unlike those mentioned above) specifically highlight the racial tensions that are an innate part of the execution of legal justice in the US. Each of the films listed below draws attention to the unequal toll that “law enforcement” exerts on Black bodies. These are documentaries that underscore both the individual and structural failures of the US justice system: from bad policing to biased witnesses, from unjust laws to the inherent violence of capital punishment, these films show us a system that has evolved to prioritize tangible results over meaningful justice.
As I write this, a veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis city council has just pledged to disband the Minneapolis Police Department and invest in community-led public safety. After a week in which police have responded to protests against their violence by doubling down with more violence, this news is certainly cause for optimism. All of the documentaries on this list represent law enforcement in this country as it was, and as it still is: but, I am hopeful, not as it has to be going forward.
The People versus Paul Crump (William Friedkin, 1962)
Commissioned by WBKB-TV in Chicago, The People versus Paul Crump is one of a handful of anti-death penalty documentaries that were released in the early 1960s (see also: Ed Spiegel’s Justice and Caryl Chessman from 1960 and Robert Drew’s The Chair from 1962). The film, Friedkin’s directorial debut, profiles Paul Crump, who was convicted of murder in 1953 after a failed robbery of a meatpacking plant resulted in the death of a security guard. Crump asserts his innocence in the film and details the abuse he suffered at the hands of the Chicago PD’s efforts to provoke his confession. Though commissioned by WBKB, the film was never broadcast; station executives worried that the film’s reenactments of this alleged police abuse were too controversial. However, Friedkin managed to get a copy of the film to Illinois governor Otto Kerner, who was so persuaded by the film that he commuted Crump’s death sentence to life without parole just days before he was scheduled to die by electric chair.
A newly restored version of the film was released by Facets in 2014, and is available for purchase here. However, if you can’t wait for that to come in the mail, a bootleg copy is currently streaming on YouTube.
Murder on a Sunday Morning (Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, 2001)
On a Sunday morning in early May 2000, James and Mary Ann Stephens, two elderly, white tourists from Georgia, were returning to their Florida motel room when they were confronted by an armed man; after a brief struggle, Mrs. Stephens was shot dead by the assailant. Police canvass the neighborhood and pick up 15-year-old Brenton Butler for questioning. Butler is Black, but in no other way resembles the assailant’s description; regardless, Mr. Stephens promptly identifies him as the man who killed his wife. This hasty police work then sets the tone for the entire case. Butler is submitted to more than twelve hours of unrecorded and unsupervised interrogation. He is berated and verbally abused; he is shackled and marched out into a nearby woods where a detective uses physical force to elicit a (quickly recanted) confession. No other leads are pursued after Butler’s arrest. His alibi is never checked, and the murder weapon, found in a dumpster nearly ten miles from the crime scene, is never dusted for fingerprints.
Murder on a Sunday Morning follows the 2000 trial of Brenton Butler for the robbery and murder of Mary Ann Stephens. From the opening statements to the promptly-returned innocent verdict, the film chronicles the racial prejudice and rampant police misconduct that led to Butler’s wrongful arrest and prosecution while highlighting the good work done by the public defenders who fight for him in court. In a post-trial interview available as an outtake on the film’s DVD, Ann Finnel, one of Butler’s attorneys, remarks, “But for the fact that we had this marvelous documentary film crew who just happened to be there to film this trial, this was a very ordinary case.” This comment points to what is so frightening about Butler’s situation: the case may be ordinary, but it suggests an emblematic story about racial profiling and the abuses of police power in the United States. Brenton Butler’s blackness became cause enough for suspicion, and this led to months of unjustified incarceration.
Murder on a Sunday Morning won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2001. It is available for rent on Amazon. It is also streaming on Hoopla and at watchdocumentaries.com.
State vs. Reed (Frank Bustoz and Ryan Polomski, 2006)
In 1998, Rodney Reed, a young, Black man from Bastrop County, TX, was convicted of the brutal rape and murder of a 19-year-old white woman, Stacey Stites. Her fiancée, Bastrop police officer Jimmy Fennell, had initially been a suspect, but when Reed’s DNA was found on the victim’s body, suspicion shifted to him. Reed claimed that he and Stites had been having an affair (a claim that others in the community have verified), and that they had consensual sex the night before her murder. But the persuasive weight of the DNA evidence convinced the all-white jury of his guilt, and they promptly sentenced him to be executed for Stites’s murder.
Cutting together interviews with many of the key players in the state of Texas’s case against Rodney Reed, the film argues that a combination of small-town racial prejudice, police error, prosecutorial misconduct, and ineffective defense counsel resulted in the questionable capital murder conviction of its subject. This 60-minute film began as a graduate thesis project at the University of Texas for filmmakers Frank Bustoz and Ryan Polomski, but it has become newly relevant as Reed’s case has been thrust back in the news of late. In November of 2019, the Court of Criminal Appeals in Texas halted Reed’s execution just days before it was scheduled to take place. The indefinite stay of execution was accompanied by an order to consider new evidence in the case, much of which suggests that the victim’s fiancé (a police officer, who later served a 10-year sentence for a different violent sex crime) is the more likely suspect. In February, the US Supreme Court denied a petition to hear Reed’s appeal, so Reed remains in prison awaiting the hearing to consider new evidence, which is scheduled for September.
In addition to State vs. Reed, Filmmakers for Justice has released another documentary about Reed: A Plea for Justice: Save Rodney Reed is an ongoing, multi-part documentary series about his case, which you can watch here. State vs. Reed is available on YouTube.
The Trials of Darryl Hunt (Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, 2006)
The Trials of Darryl Hunt explores the racial and ideological biases that contribute to miscarried justice by tracing the twenty-year journey to overturn a wrongful murder conviction. In September of 1984, Darryl Eugene Hunt was charged with the rape and murder of Deborah Sykes, a young white reporter in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Initially called in as a witness, Hunt was soon charged for the crime himself. Although he had a solid alibi for the time of the murder, police lined up a litany of witnesses to testify against him. Hunt is young, he’s poor, he’s Black and a predominantly white jury convicts him despite a lack of physical evidence connecting him to the crime.
Darryl Hunt’s blackness became the central organizing evidence around which the case against him hinged, and so The Trials of Darryl Hunt is self-consciously structured to expose the justice system’s inherent racial bias. The film enumerates the racial disparities in the case: eleven out of twelve members of Hunt’s first jury and all the members of his second jury were white, as were the police and prosecutors in charge of his case as well as the news media covering it. By chronicling the various factors that led to Hunt’s wrongful arrest and conviction – class and racial bias, police corruption, prosecutorial misconduct – the film exposes the ideological assumptions and systemic failures that undergirded his conviction.
Hunt was eventually exonerated. The restitution settlement he was awarded by the state of North Carolina helped him fund the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public about criminal justice reform opportunities, advocating for the wrongfully convicted, and providing resources to support individuals who were recently released from prison. Tragically, Darryl Hunt committed suicide in 2016, at the age of 51.
The Trials of Darryl Hunt is available for rent on Amazon and YouTube. It is streaming for free on Tubi.
Scenes of a Crime (Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh, 2011)
Scenes of a Crime profiles the case of Adrian Thomas, a New York man who admitted to murdering his infant son after more than 15 hours of police interrogation over the course of two days. Unlike the previously mentioned films, Scenes of a Crime is less about the failures of corrupt or biased individuals and more about how institutionalized policing practices produce bad outcomes. The film takes the Reid Technique, a prevailing police interrogation method, to task by juxtaposing a police training video with a tape of these techniques in action; the end result has Thomas confessing to the abuse and murder of his son, even as doctors later rule that the child’s death had been caused by a viral infection and not an act of violence.
This film is about systemic failures rooted in class and racial bias. Once an allegation of abuse is levied against Thomas – an allegation that turns out to be unequivocally false – it colors how everyone treats him. Doctors don’t investigate his son’s underlying medical conditions. Child Services takes the other children out of their home and away from their mother. White jurors admit that Thomas’s appearance influenced their decision to vote to convict.
In 2014, six years after his conviction for a murder that never happened, Thomas’s sentence was overturned by the New York Court of Appeals, which ordered a retrial without his “involuntary” confession statement. He was found not guilty in his second trial later that year.
Scenes of a Crime is available for rent on Vimeo.
3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets (Marc Silver, 2015)
3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets chronicles the trial of Michael Dunn, a white, middle-aged, middle-class man who shot and killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis at a Florida gas station during an altercation over how loudly he and his friends were playing their music. Dunn maintains his innocence, claiming he’d fired into the teenagers’ car in self-defense. Whether or not his actions were justified became a key question during the trial; the same Florida “stand-your-ground” laws that protected George Zimmerman from being convicted for Trayvon Martin’s murder were used to defend Dunn’s behavior.
Throughout the trial (and this film), Dunn shirks responsibility for his actions, never admitting to any wrongdoing. More than that, though, Dunn is convinced that he is the real victim in the situation. He believes, firmly and unequivocally, that he was justified in his aggression. This position is made manifest in the film through the incorporation of audio recordings of phone calls Dunn made from prison while he was awaiting trial. “I’m the fucking victim here,” he says. “I was the one [who was] victimized. I mean I don’t know how else to cut it, they attacked me, I’m the victim. I’m the victor, but I was the victim too.”
Jordan Davis’s mother, Lucy McBath, who is featured in the film, became a vocal gun control advocate after her son’s murder; she also became a member of the US House of Representatives from GA’s 6th Congressional district along with the rest of the Blue Wave in 2018.
You can find 3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets on HBO, or streaming for free on Vimeo
Traffic Stop (Kate Davis, 2017)
Traffic Stop is a 30-minute documentary that profiles a routine traffic stop that quickly escalates into a dramatic case of police abuse and wrongful arrest. On June 15, 2015, Officer Bryan Richter followed 26-year-old math teacher, Breaion King, into a fast-food parking lot in Austin, TX. King is already parked and exiting her car by the time Richter pulls up behind her, seemingly unaware that she’s being “pulled over.” The officer asks her to return to her car, which she does; however, her frustration is evident: “Can you please hurry up?” she asks. And the officer snaps. He yanks her violently from the car, throws her to the ground, kneels on her back, threatens to tase her, and roughly cuffs her hands behind her back. “She’s got some fight in her,” Richter says to a second officer on the scene as he shoves her into the back seat of a police car.
Traffic Stop alternates between the impersonal dashcam footage from Richter’s car – which caught the entire interaction on tape – and more personal interactions with King as she moves through her everyday life. This past semester, I taught this film alongside Simone Browne’s Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, and used it as an entry point for a broader discussion with my students about “racializing surveillance” as a mechanism for social control. Later in the film, as King is being transported to the police station by a different officer, she asks him why he thinks people are afraid of Black people. He responds quickly and curtly: “Violent tendencies.” And, it’s clear that this racist belief – that Black people are inherently violent, and thus the justified target of enhanced police focus – has structured every step of the Austin PD’s treatment of Breaion King.
Traffic Stop was nominated for an Academy Award in the Documentary Short category in 2017. Davis’ follow-up film, Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, is also worth a watch. Both films are currently streaming on HBO; Traffic Stop is also available to rent through Amazon and YouTube.
Kristen Fuhs is Associate Professor of Media Studies in the Department of Communication at Woodbury University in Burbank, CA. She is the co-founder and co-editor of Docalogue, as well as its related book series. The first title in this series, I Am Not Your Negro: A Docalogue will be published later this month.