Read: No indictment in the death of Sandra Bland
Still, the documentary aptly portrays the family’s pursuit of justice for Bland as a complicated tug of war. Trooper Encinia was indicted for perjury and fired in 2016, but all charges against him were dismissed last year. Bland’s family ultimately settled with Waller County and the Texas Department of Public Safety in September 2016 for $1.9 million and a promise of jail reform, which included mandating that county jails divert people with mental-health and substance-abuse issues toward treatment, and that they hold police de-escalation training. And though provisions such as requiring police officers with a history of racial profiling to undergo training were struck, the Sandra Bland Act was signed into law last year and includes the aforementioned changes.
The circumstances of Bland’s death don’t exist in a vacuum. And while it’s easy to imagine racism as theoretical, Bland’s story marks the many ways racism can not only disrupt lives, but also end them. Viewers may understand why her loved ones don’t believe Bland was suicidal, and likely will also understand why her arrest and its aftermath could have left Bland feeling hopeless enough to end her life.
Bland’s legacy is similar in many ways to those of other African Americans whose deaths have sparked discussions about policing, racism, and criminal justice in America. When such stories go viral, critical details can be missed and misinformation can spread. As the stories fade out of the 24-hour news cycle and the hashtags disappear, families, friends, and oftentimes attorneys are left navigating complicated legal battles and struggling with tangible grief and inexplicable loss.
Documentaries such as Time: The Kalief Browder Story, Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story, and now Say Her Name take on the heavy lifting of providing fuller, more nuanced narratives about ordinary people catapulted into the public spotlight after suffering unjust deaths. The families sharing their stories knew all along that the victims’ lives had meaning, and the filmmakers chronicle the ways these relatives ensure that the deaths of their loved ones have meaning, too. The films also contribute to the work of teaching society about racial profiling, harmful bail laws, and mass incarceration. But not all documentaries are created equal. Because many of these subjects are complicated and difficult to understand, a film like Say Her Name, with a run time of 103 minutes, only scratches the surface.
The family’s heartbreak after learning that Bland died alone, bruised, and in pain is palpable. It is clear that her life should not have ended. The film doesn’t get close to showing how discriminatory systems contributed to Bland’s death, but it tries to articulate the broader impact by showing her family’s fight for reform. Sandra Bland was a woman who thought deeply about broader issues of racial justice and offered plans to address them. It’s unfortunate that this documentary could not do the same. Despite that, it is worth watching—if only to learn the details of just how unnecessary Bland’s passing was.