‘Say Her Name’: An unblinking look

Documentary reveals the life and death of Sandra Bland.

From left, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, panel moderator, David Heilbronner, co-producer, Geneva Reed, mother, Cannon Lambert, lead attorney, Sharon Bland, sister, and Kate Davis, co-producer. - Peter Simon

Updated August 4

“Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland” is gripping, a shocking documentary that tells us many things, the most important of which may be that this ain’t over, it’s just beginning.

If you were among the standing-room-only crowd at the M.V. Film Center at Thursday’s pre-screening, you know that, too.  

What America now knows, thanks to bystander video and ensuing news coverage, is that Sandra Bland was 28, black, and on her way to buy groceries on Friday afternoon, July 10, 2015 in Hempstead, Texas, when second-year Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia pulled her over for a turn-signal violation that went bad. His dashcam video and a bystander’s video of her manhandling and arrest on July 10, 2015 went viral. Three days later, Bland was found dead by hanging in her cell at the Waller County lockup in Hempstead.

Ten days after her death, Oscar-winning documentary filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, longtime seasonal Island residents, got a call from the HBO network asking if they would do a documentary about the Bland case.

They would. When their HBO film airs on Dec. 3, America will know Sandra Bland and the perfect microcosm her story represents about policing and racial relations in this country.

Before the screening, Heilbroner told the Times, “We were on the Island when the story broke, watching like everybody else. It was mesmerizing and very upsetting. We called Cannon Lambert [attorney for the Bland family of Naperville, Ill.], met with him in Chicago, and we connected. He picked us to do it. A lot of people wanted to make this film.”

At the Thursday screening, attended by Lambert, Bland’s mother Geneva Reed-Veal, and Sandra’s sister Shavon Bland, Lambert told the audience, “Kate and David clearly were the best people to tell this story.”

He chose well. The filmmakers used storytelling techniques, clips from Bland’s video blogs, and  solid journalism to tell the story of a bright penny committed to racial unity, opposed to racial divide and police methodology of violence, who died in police custody, by her own hand or by others’.

Davis and Heilbroner have delivered a taut, gripping, and layered story. The topline makes the case for the potential danger you face if you are black in America living everyday life. A petite blond women minister looks at the camera and says, “If Sandra Bland looked like me, she’d be with us today.”

Davis and Heilbroner dug deep for the texture and nuance of this story. At a Q and A after the film, moderated by Island resident and PBS stalwart Charlayne Hunter-Gault, an audience member asked the filmmakers an important question: How did they get such startling in-depth access to and commentary from embattled authorities, uncommon in projects of this sort?

Davis said that perhaps Heilbroner’s experience as a prosecutor in the Manhattan DA’s office might have made the authorities feel “he was part of law enforcement” and they’d get fair treatment. They did get a fair shake. The film has a point of view, but it is not a polemic. Thursday was “the fifth or sixth advance screening. We’ve had the same response, whether a black audience in Richmond, Va., or a white audience in Maine,” Heilbroner said.

The filmmakers have created additional power for their film by making Bland both a central character and a Greek chorus for the audience. She is present and interactive. For example, a cut of one of her “Sandy Speaks” blog videos inveighs against prejudgment, and calls for knowledge and understanding of people who are different from us. “If you are black and have no white friends, you need to get some. If you are white and have no black friends, you need to make some,” she says.

That advice came to the conscious mind as we watched multiple interviews with Sheriff R. Glenn Smith and county DA Elton Mathis. Now Smith is a perfect visual stereotype of the good ol’ boy Southern sheriff, interviewed with a pearl-handled, silver-plated six-shooter on a side table next to him. By the end of the film and several interviews later, Smith pauses to compose himself before saying, “I feel moral responsibility for this [Bland’s death].”

DA Mathis ultimately also shows up as a conflicted man. He chooses his words carefully (“This was not a model traffic stop,” he says), but he leaves us with the impression that he is not merely legal-parsing here, but that he has personal feelings and beliefs that may be at odds with his culture. And to be clear, Waller County is not an isolated patch of West Texas scrub country. It is part of the modern Houston metroplex.

We are able to withhold stereotypical judgments about these men, different from us, because of Bland’s voice. Bland, a graduate of Prairie View A&M University, knew that technology could make a difference in the fair dispensation of justice. Her “Sandy Speaks” video blogs were growing in viewership from about 1,000 for the first few to more than 7,000 in 2015 at the time of her death.

The circumstances of her death and the meaning of her life have gripped and activated millions in the intervening period. The Dec. 3 release  of the HBO documentary “Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland” is likely to refocus the movement for accountable policing and racial unity.

Bland’s case grabbed our consciousness initially because of Encinia’s escalation of emotions and use of force during the stop, and following reports of inconsistencies in police methodology. Why were there gaps in the officer’s dashcam video? Why was she held in isolation when other female prisoners were in the lockup? What happened to video surveillance in the lockup, which disappeared for 90 minutes on the day she purportedly died? Why were prisoner check logs incorrect? Why were there no fingerprints of any kind on her neck or the trash bag from which she hung? Why was bond not posted for three days?

Was Sandra Bland suicidal? The intake form says she admitted suicidal thoughts after losing a baby in pregnancy in 2014, but was not considering suicide in the present.

Though Reed-Veal said Thursday night, ”My daughter did not kill herself, and the truth will come out,” we may never know the full story.

In the aftermath of Bland’s death, no one was indicted for wrongful death. Trooper Encinia was fired for perjury around his actions, and those charges were later dropped. A lawsuit brought by the family against the county was settled for $1.9 million, and Sheriff Smith was re-elected with 65 percent of the vote in 2016.

So what changed, really? Well, in the aftermath, a rallying cry and hashtag of #SayHerName began at protest rallies from New York to Hempstead, Texas, and continues today. And after this film goes national, Sandra Bland will have new life.