REVIEW: Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland (2018)
Three years since the alleged suicide of Sandra Bland, the new HBO documentary Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland looks to explore the varying angles and perspectives surrounding her case. On July 15, 2015, Bland was found hung in her jail cell in Waller County, Texas after being arrested at a traffic stop just three days prior. Her death was ruled a suicide but has since left too many questions unanswered. Seeded within a culture of grizzly police brutality and growing racially-motivated violence, her case sparked immense outrage and grief. In this documentary, there’s so many things to unpack about the case, but more than anything, we get a personal glimpse into who Sandra Bland was as she tells her own story.
Co-directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner allow Sandra to become a charismatic presence in the documentary, letting her welcome us and showing us the things that enraged and engaged her. “Good afternoon, my beautiful kings and queens,” she’d say all through her personal vlogs. She didn’t believe in the silence that tainted closed minds; she was putting herself out there as a voice to enlighten the masses. Sandra was standing up for things such as children’s education on black history, learning to love the skin you’re in as well as one’s natural hair, and pushing to open the conversation of racial privilege. She was an activist, an empowered woman of color, an aunt, a daughter.
A glaring, yet powerful, approach is how the documentary treats all sides of the case. Davis and Heilbroner devote a spotlight to both sides of the sphere, interviewing Texas authorities as well as following the Bland family closely through legal affairs. It’s at times unsettling to be watching those who surrounded her within her last hours take the screen to explain their circumstances. Details become blurry and the pulls of this sudden legal thriller tips on the edge. This unfavorable perspective of the story prompts viewers to dissect the parallels in police misconduct and the systemic shortcomings that led to Bland’s life being cut short. The film makes an effort to reach out and inform you. Her ”Sandy Speaks” video series alone proves the relevance in her word, the hardy attitude that makes her reported death an unbelievable happening
Hearing first hand from Bland’s family as early as ten days after her death (the time filming began) is an emotionally powerful stance on this wonderful woman’s legacy. Patience and care blossom in the structure of the film and it blends Sandra’s strong-willed personality into a message of unashamed activism and strength. This film is a thoughtful ode to Sandra’s life and it’s just as powerful and important as she was.
Say Her Name is a momentous piece of documentary filmmaking that’ll no doubt bear a cultural impact, as it should! During the runtime we learn more about Sandra and are shaken to the core at just how much of a loss her death has truly signified. Through this documentary we remember her for who she was, what she stood for, and how the fight for justice is never truly satisfied. HBO has produced a powerful documentary to add to this already stunning year for docs.
Directed by: Kate Davis, David Heilbroner