“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?
We reached out to Jay. He saw this young man’s name being invoked by the President of the United States and then off that, reported on by The Washington Post. Around that same time, we were putting the pieces together and saying: ‘Okay, if we’ve done this now for six months… who would the most organic partner for this film would be?’ We needed someone who had a passion for who Kalief was and who also had the ability to wake up the world. Jay has the ability to shake people’s attention and make them really focus on this story. Chaka [Pilgrim, President of Roc Nation Records] was the one who found Kalief’s attorney and set up a meeting for Jay and Kalief, so we were able to approach Chaka through Kalief’s attorney. It was extremely organic and it was something that was on Jay’s mind; he was already thinking about Kalief. Then, he saw this team of people making a film about the story for six months and said, ‘This must be meant to be.’
Why were you drawn to the mini-series format, as opposed to a straight up film-length feature, or something like Fruitvale Station that functions more as a biopic?
Right from the beginning, we just felt that there was such a big story to tell, there were so many different things to explore. We needed the time to really get into who Kalief was, track his journey, and also be able to explore other facets of the criminal justice system that his story reveals. For us to do a feature — although could have been very, very powerful — there just wasn’t enough time in that format. We felt this story was crying out to us to become a series, because there was so much to explore. With a series, you don’t have to button it up, you don’t have to go, beginning, middle, and end. Every show has a beginning, middle, and end, but it offered a bigger arc to pursue.
As far as that idea of a ‘beginning, and a middle, and an end,’ with a story like this, is there ever really an end? Is there a closure? Was that part of the goal in creating the series?
Well, we’ve been cutting each episode right up until the last minute. The final episode airs today, and literally the day before yesterday we finished the series. Every episode was worked on until about two days before it aired. That allowed us to make it very current. Every recent development and finding we were responding to however we could. In the case of this last episode, we had locked it in for last Friday morning — and then the mayor makes this historic announcement that he’s going to close Rikers Island in the span of ten years. Obviously, there is a connection there to Kalief Browder — the mayor even mentioned Kalief Browder by name at that press conference. The judge who was hired to make 180 page report, Judge Jonathan Lippman, cited Kalief Browder in his reports to the mayor about why we need to close Rikers Island.
Still, there’s so many things left open-ended: The family is still fighting for an apology, they haven’t been apologized to, let alone had their settlement considered. But that was still this really big moment, and it happened just a few days ago. Really, it has become the ultimate last moment of the series; it frames the whole thing. That this kid — as Jay Z said, this prophet — his energy has moved the world. On our first broadcast, we were the number one hashtag on Twitter for the evening, which shows the incredible reach his story has had. We saw the effects both on the national level and on the local level. The local level became our focus here. We still have to raise the age (of criminal responsibility) in New York City. It’s still one of the only two states that treats 16 year olds as adults. There’s still a lot of work to do.
How do you see this tying into the greater prison reform issue, especially, as it relates to President Trump? He’s kind of stepping into this whole hardline law and order stance. How is that impacting cases like Kalief’s? Recently, it feels like we’ve been making progress, do you think this administration will set us back?
I think, nationally, people see the president as a symbol for who we are as a country. We saw Barack Obama and many of us rejoiced about that symbol — what he represented on so many different levels. The fact is, a lot of these prison reforms happen on the state and city level. If there’s engagement, civic engagement on the state and city level, and people are actually serious about making changes, they need to start with their state and local government. They need to be serious about who their judges are. They need to be serious about the DAs they vote for. They need to take a look at their county jails. They need to take a look at the sentencing practices. They need to take a look at how folks are arrested in their communities. Are folks being arrested because of the color of their skin or do we have just practices about who we arrest and why we arrest them? These are things that people can focus on, regardless of the fact that Donald Trump is in office with Jeff Sessions as the attorney general. These are things that we can focus on locally.
It’s because people … honestly, it’s because people are sitting on their ass. They don’t understand that they are the change. We could put in a bunch of young candidates right now instead of these old folks that have been running these seats for decades. We could be running young candidates with fresh ideas and they would win. It just depends on how people are mobilized. We could take this system and change its direction, but it’s very hard. We have a country where less than half (of the population) votes in the national elections. Less than half of the eligible voters. That’s our message is, wake up. Everybody’s got to wake up right now and, ‘Be the change,’ as Jay Z said.
I cried last night watching the series, this was such a loaded case and such an incredibly tough subject. How do you, as someone who had a project in mind, go about approaching these people who have been through so much? How do you ask someone to open up about such dark experiences?
I’ve had the very unfortunate privilege and honor of creating several projects about members of the black community who have dealt with what we call ‘the war at home.’ They have dealt with vast pain, abandonment, and betrayal, whether it’s from the local police, or people within their own neighborhood losing family members. When I met [Kalief’s mother] Venida, and when I met Kalief’s siblings, I felt like the news cameras had faded. We all felt like no one really understood the depth of this story. Maybe they had seen it on the news, or had read it in the magazine — and that was great — but these were living, breathing human beings who had suffered and felt abandoned by the world. We had to live by our words. We had to be there for them beyond rolling a camera. We had to sit with them without the camera rolling and make sure that they knew that we cared, and that they knew that we were going to fight for them and we were going to continue Kalief’s fight. It’s kind of a pretty straight forward process, you know? Trust is not something you can steal.
Do you feel like there is any sense of closure for anyone after this whole process? Do you feel like we can get that?
You know, at the moment, I feel like the closure is now a bigger door has been opened — so it’s a bigger door to close. I think that that’s where we are now. We have the whole world watching. How are we ultimately going to give closure to something that’s been unraveling for 400 years? Kalief’s story is just a recent chapter in an ongoing struggle. I don’t know if closure on a large scale can ever be attained, but I know that on a small level, this story has reached its own highest peak.
When we go live with the series on Netflix, that will increase its reach even more. That will open up another way for up to 50 million people for people to see this story. It wouldn’t be that crazy to think that within a year, 100 million people will have seen this work. That’s a lot of people; that can make change. On one hand, I feel like closure is knowledge and justice is awareness. On another hand, I feel like we’re just beginning and there’s a lot of work to do. I think the work is just begun.
The sixth and final episode of Time: The Kalief Browder Story aired on Spike TV this week. For more information about the series go here.