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True crime; doubtful solutions

A look at ‘Brother’s Keeper’ and ‘Finding Kendrick Johnson’

Delbert Ward, in "Brother's Keeper."Criterion Channel

In the backwoods of Munnsville, N.Y. (population 453), the Ward brothers — Roscoe, Lyman, Bill, and Delbert — kept to themselves. Which was fine with the neighbors, who were not keen to socialize with the dairy-farming siblings. The walk-through sequence that begins Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s masterpiece, “Brother’s Keeper” (1992), suggests why. The Wards’ ramshackle hovel is heaped with dirt, garbage, and detritus, and the brothers sitting in the midst of it are no tidier than their environment. Nonetheless, the people of Munnsville regarded the brothers affectionately, if condescendingly, and referred to them as “The Ward Boys” even though their ages ranged from 59 to 71.

This seclusion ended when Bill, who had long been ailing, was discovered dead in the bed he shared with Delbert. The police questioned Delbert, who had no lawyer, for several hours, finally getting him to sign a confession stating that he had suffocated his brother. Delbert, who like the other Wards was nearly illiterate and had no understanding of the law, claimed that the investigators had told him what to say happened and he agreed to it even though it was not true. He was charged with murder and held on $10,000 bail.

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But unlike the response in Berlinger and Sinofsky’s “Paradise Lost” trilogy (1996-2011), where the accused teenagers are condemned by their community, the people of Munnsville rallied around their reclusive neighbors. Until then they had considered them harmless, if noisome, outsiders. But now they were country people like themselves treated like bumpkins by the haughty, disrespectful, antagonistic authorities. The case outraged their sense of justice, their notions of dignity, and within a day the bail money was raised, donated by people who prior to the crime would have avoided the Wards. But now the people of Munnsville speculated that the case was a conspiracy to take over the Wards’ land and sell it to developers. Some were so irate that they grumbled about taking the law into their own hands.

News coverage snowballed, with Connie Chung descending on Munnsville to cover the “unbelievable” story, which was beginning to look like a freak show. “They’re little boys with old men’s faces,” a Munnsville resident tells her. Meanwhile, Delbert’s defense lawyer worries that this sudden exposure to the outside world was changing his client’s image from that of naïf to media-savvy hayseed. Privately some of his supporters acknowledge the possibility that, as the police surmised, Delbert killed his brother to put him out of his misery. Or that he had a sexual relationship with Bill that had devolved into violence.

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Despite these doubts and any evidence, their faith in Delbert’s innocence remains adamant. “It’s we against them,” says one supporter. “‘They’ being the big city DA trying to get poor Delbert.”

Berlinger and Sinofsky employ little overt editorializing. But the images and editing direct the viewer’s sympathies and arouse questions with seemingly extraneous details and sometimes subtle, sometimes blunt juxtapositions. In one scene Delbert describes how stark the jail conditions that he endured were; meanwhile the camera browses the squalor in his living room. In another scene a supporter remarks how harmless Delbert is over the image of a dead kitten in the Wards’ yard.

The truth about Bill’s death is not resolved in the film. But what comes into sharp focus is the division in American culture, between the rural and urban, between the “elite” and marginalized. It’s a glimpse into a future when that divide has expanded into an abyss exploited by cynical politicians whose key to power lies in fomenting conflict.

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“Brother’s Keeper” streams as part of the Criterion Channel series “Sundance Class of ‘92: The Year Indie Exploded,” beginning Jan. 1. Go to www.criterionchannel.com.

From "Finding Kendrick Johnson."STARZ

Justice denied

On Jan. 11, 2013, the body of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson, a popular student and promising athlete at Lowndes High School, in Valdosta, Ga., was found rolled up upside down in a mat in the school gym. The police investigation determined there was no foul play, that Johnson had dropped his sneakers into the mat, crawled down the cylinder’s narrow aperture to retrieve them, and was asphyxiated. Somehow the sneakers ended up on the top of the tube next to Johnson’s feet.

His parents found this explanation unsatisfactory. After years of demanding answers and pursuing their own investigation, they are still seeking the truth.

Helping them has been filmmaker Jason Pollock, who covers their campaign in his documentary “Finding Kendrick Johnson.” He finds that even beyond the official, implausible explanation of the boy’s death, the Johnsons had good reason to doubt the authorities.

The killing seemed part of the culture of violence against Black people that has been going on since Jim Crow and intensifying in recent years in numerous, highly publicized killings. The victim’s inexplicably battered, grotesquely disfigured face brought to mind the case of Emmett Till, the teenager lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after being falsely accused of accosting a white woman. Like Emmett Till’s mother, who displayed her son’s body in an open casket, photographs of which shocked the world, Kendrick’s parents used an image of their son’s face, on fliers, asking for information.

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From "Finding Kendrick Johnson."STARZ

More to the point was the history of Valdosta. It’s the county seat of Lowndes County, site of “the most heinous act of lynching in the history of the country” according to Jenifer Lewis’s voiceover narration. In 1918, Mary Turner, a pregnant woman who had spoken out against her husband’s lynching, was herself lynched. But first the mob cut her baby out of her body and stomped it to death before her eyes. On the 100th anniversary of this crime the sign commemorating it was shot full of holes. Though the majority of the population is Black, a “state of terror,” in the words of the narrator, has propped up white control of the town.

But the Johnson family was equal to the task. Acts of non-violent resistance, such as blocking the door to the courthouse, aroused national attention. A whistleblower provided evidence of a cover-up. And Pollock and his team unearthed documents and video suppressed by the FBI that provide new clues to how Kendrick died and why.

“Finding Kendrick Johnson” can be streamed on STARZ. Go to www.starz.com/us/en/movies/64874.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.