As part of the Annenberg-HBO Diverse Voices Series, an initiative that explores diversity in entertainment, panelists spoke about police brutality and violence, particularly toward black women at Wallis Annenberg Hall. The panel followed a screening of excerpts from the documentary, “Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland.”
The film tells the story of Sandra Bland, a black woman who was pulled over by a white policeman for a traffic violation and wrongfully imprisoned, ultimately resulting in her unexplained death.
“‘Say Her Name’ brings an intersectional perspective to the conversation and activism around Black Lives Matter, establishing race and gender as crucial frames for the way we talk about and understand violence against black women,” said Annenberg professor Alison Trope, who co-moderated the panel alongside professor Dan Birman.
The discussion included documentary co-directors and producers David Heilbroner and Kate Davis, Bland’s sister Sharon Cooper and race and digital technology research scholar Brooklyne Gipson.
After screening the beginning of the film, the filmmakers wanted to be as authentic as possible in their depiction of Bland and her family because of the media frenzy surrounding her arrest and death.
“[We] let the audience know that they were going to be close up, that it would be a personal journey through the eyes of the family, largely,” Davis said. “We wanted to contrast that with the more public furor over her death.”
The documentary-making process spanned two years. Heilbroner and Davis said they contacted the Bland family lawyer in hopes of telling Bland’s story and investigating the police misconduct that resulted in her wrongful imprisonment and death. Heilbroner said the significance of the story drew them to make the film.
“The symbolism of this case was so arresting,” Heilbroner said. “We’re talking about an African American woman found hanged in a Southern Texas jail cell. It just brought back this enormous history of lynching … Nobody knew what happened and nobody was getting answers.”
In the process of making the documentary, Heilbroner said he expected to learn the details of Bland’s death. However, the question of whether she was killed or committed suicide remains unanswered because there were no cameras in her jail cell.
Davis said it ultimately did not matter how Bland died because the circumstances that led to her arrest already indicated that an injustice had occurred.
“[There is an] urgent need for police reform, de-escalation measures … There’s a legacy of just brutal treatment that the film addresses,” Davis said.
According to Heilbroner, it was important to include the uncut footage of Bland’s arrest in the documentary. He said he wanted to show concrete evidence that Bland conducted herself correctly in her interaction with Texas Department of Safety Trooper Brian Encinia. The footage of Bland’s arrest shows her asking why she is being arrested and asserting her right not to leave her car or put out her cigarette.
“After a while, she reached her breaking point, and he needled her into a state of being pissed off,” Heilbroner said. “Anyone who’s followed the history of black Americans at the hands of white police should not be that surprised that you can eventually push somebody over the edge.”
Cooper said it is also important to discuss what Encinia could have done differently when interacting with a civilian to prevent the situation from becoming confrontational.
“Police officers swear to protect and serve the general public, so it’s their responsibility to engage in de-escalation tactics that they should be trained in,” Cooper said. “And in the event that they are not trained in those, their feet have to be held to the fire because they are impacting entire communities.”
Cooper said that Bland’s interactions with the police added gender to the conversation about police brutality. According to Cooper, it is important to recognize that black women are victims of racial injustice as well and are just as unsafe in situations with police as black men.
“The power in this film … brings black women and girls into the conversation in a way that I don’t believe that they were before,” Cooper said.
Cooper said she was grateful to the filmmakers for the respect they showed to her family and their decision to retreat into the background so that the story could speak for itself.
“We had very real questions [about Bland’s death,]” Cooper said. “And what the film does is pick apart those questions in a way that is complex, nuanced and delicate, based [on] the way the information was presented.”