By far the best part of “Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland” is that we get to see her face and hear her words.
The documentary by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, made for HBO but getting a theatrical release ahead of its Dec. 3 debut on the pay cable service, amasses family memories and post-mortem facts and conjectures to serve as a full and sympathetic primer. If all you remember about Bland is that she got pulled over for a minor traffic violation in Hempstead, Texas, and somehow wound up dead in the Waller County Jail, the movie will bring you up to speed.
It may be more valuable, though, for providing audiences with the full measure of a personality one acquaintance calls “big and bright.” In doing so, the movie only sharpens the tragedy of her death.
Bland, 28, regularly made and posted video empowerment talks with her phone. Called “Sandy Speaks,” the segments are by turns warm, angry, thoughtful, concerned, exhausted, funny. They address racial inequality, both for anyone of color looking in and to an unseen audience of whites.
She was particularly concerned with police injustice, which she saw as deeply entrenched in a racism-ridden society. “You just don’t know,” she patiently informs her audience in one video. “You don’t know racism because you don’t live it. What you may see as just somebody doing their jobs, we see the undertones of that. We’ve been trained to see them because we live them every day.”
The ironies chill and sicken. On July 10, 2015, the Chicago-raised Bland was back in her college town, west of Houston. She had just gotten a job as a summer-program associate at Prairie View A&M University. She was driving to get groceries. A police cruiser driven by Patrolman Brian Encinio pulled her over for failing to signal a lane change after Bland moved over to let the cruiser pass.
“Say Her Name” hopscotches through the familiar yet horrible dash-cam video in which a simmering Bland touches off the officer’s ire, a calculated request to douse a cigarette becomes the excuse to escalate, and suddenly Encinio is yelling “I will light you up!” and dragging Bland out of her car. She is taken out of camera range and we hear her screams of pain as he puts a knee in her back and wrenches her arm. For failure to signal a lane change.
Three days later, Bland was found hanging by a twisted garbage bag in her cell, and the case exploded into view. Questions arose that have never been satisfactorily answered. Why was she placed in the one cell out of view of jailhouse cameras? Why was she placed in isolation for three days? Why has a precise time of death never been established?
“Say Her Name” features sit-down interviews with Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith and District Attorney Elton Mathis, both of whom come across as sorrowfully diplomatic while trying to position Bland as a troubled woman with a sketchy past. Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and sisters Sharon Cooper and Shante Needham, provide a fuller picture of a young woman who cared deeply about people and was actively engaged in making the world a better place.
Additional voices include Bland’s college friends, her youth pastor, a white woman reverend who muses how differently the traffic stop would have occurred if she had been behind the wheel. We learn from the Bland family’s lawyer, Cannon Lambert, of the jail allowing CNN reporters into the death cell only to turn around and blame the Blands for destroying evidence by burying Sandra.
An independent autopsy answers some questions — whatever marijuana was in Bland’s system had since metabolized, meaning she wasn’t high at the time of her arrest — and poses new ones. Homicide is ruled out, although Reed-Veal refuses to believe her daughter committed suicide. But if it was suicide, what broke this strong young woman on the verge of a new life? The mystery of motive is both beside the point and to it. “It was an in-custody death,” says her lawyer. “Sandy should be here. Period.”
“Say Her Name” navigates a steady path between haters on one side and conspiracy nuts on the other; it’s an angry movie that uses its inside voice. Officer Encinio was eventually fired but the charges against him were dropped. A grand jury refused to indict anyone; anyway, how do you indict an entire system? Bland’s family won a $1.9 million settlement with a promise of jail reform and de-escalation programs; the latter were dropped from a subsequently passed crime bill. University Drive, where she was arrested, has been renamed Sandy Bland Parkway.
All that’s left are the “Sandy Speaks” videos, which only make you wish you’d met this woman in life rather than in death. “I’m not going to stop,” Sandy Bland says in one. “This is about educating you. That’s the only way this is going to work.”
SAY HER NAME: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF SANDRA BLAND
Directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner. At Coolidge Corner. 105 minutes. Unrated (as R: language, dash-cam violence)Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.