“I don’t fit in anymore. Before, I fit in.”
Of all the many, many perceptions shared of Kalief Browder throughout the Spike TV documentary on his life, Time: The Kalief Browder Story, for some reason this one is the one that haunts me the most. Of all the ways his story is told in the series, whether it be through the words of his family and friends, city officials and activists, his tormentors and his failed wardens, this phrase stands out because it speaks of lost potential, lost time, lost identity. Browder identifies his own loss of faith, loss of hope. His inability to get back to before is the crux of it. He was a child caught up by a predatory system of law enforcement; 16-year-old kid turned man caged in a trap beyond his ability to fight back, protest, or even to suffer in silence, betrayed by a so-called “justice” system that couldn’t be bothered to make good on its sacred promise of innocent until proven guilty.
Kalief’s story made national headlines when he filed suit against the city of New York in November 2013 after spending the previous three years confined to Rikers Island for a crime he didn’t commit and was never formally charged for. A witness identified Kalief as the culprit in the theft of a backpack containing a camera and cash, but constantly shifting (and often conflicting) stories and endless delays prevented Kalief from getting a court date after he refused to admit guilt in questioning. Kalief was imprisoned from the spring of 2010 until the fall of 2013, when a sympathetic Brooklyn judge finally allowed him to go home after the DA office’s case fell apart without the original witness, who had left the country in the meantime.
After his release, Kalief was profiled in The New Yorker and The Huffington Post, he appeared on talk shows — including Rosie O’Donnell’s show — and he even met with the rapper-mogul Jay Z (who would go on to help support the mini-series about his case.) Then, on June 6, 2015 he took his own life, unable to overcome the trauma of his harrowing experience while incarcerated, despite being free for almost as long as he’d been locked up. Without Kalief alive to tell his own story, the saga seemed doomed to become just another entry in the ledger of injustice, if not for the matching idealism of a kindred spirit from a world away.
Jenner Furst is a seasoned, Peabody Award-winning documentary director who understands the ins-and-outs of stories like Kalief’s better than most. Early in his career, Furst developed an 8-hour docuseries for CNN called Chicagoland that examined the intersections of civil politics and gang violence, and dismantles how the actions of one provide the ingredients for the other. Furst’s passion for shining light on the brutal mechanisms of poverty and the failures of the criminal justice system naturally drew him to Browder’s narrative. But it’s his ability to draw out and reflect on the humanity of his subjects that makes the mini-series on Browder’s life, Time: The Kalief Browder Story, such a powerful piece of work.
The docuseries was also executive produced by Jay Z, who called Kalief “a prophet,” as Furst lays bare the details of this family’s nightmare and the factors that contributed to a true American tragedy. Kalief refused for three years to plead out of his dire circumstances, maintaining his innocence until his release, then taking his story national to bring light to a dark corner of the American social system so many are caged by, yet unable to speak out against. This is just one story, but it reflects the unjust experience that many Black Americans face at the hands of the American legal system. Furst and I spoke over the phone about his work on the series as the final episode airs on Spike TV tonight. Read our conversation below.
Obviously this is an important story on a national scale, but there’s something about having a figure on Jay Z’s level involved that raises the stakes. How did he become part of the project?