HBO's 'Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland' is solid but leaves you with more questions than answers
At the end of the day, all Sandra Bland tried to do was minimize the amount of violence that had started to grip the country
Update: On May 7, 2019, new footage from Sandra Bland's cellphone was released and it showed the infamous July 2015 traffic stop from the perspective of the 28-year-old activist.
HBO's 'Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland' isn't just any old documentary that people came together to make just for the sake of making something. In the era of Black Lives Matter, the documentary shed light on one of the greatest legacies left behind by a contemporary activist.
The death of the 28-year-old activist wasn't the first of its kind when people talk about suspicious, but it was one that brought on a movement that the small county of Waller, Texas, could not imagine. Sandra Bland was full of life. She made many videos, titled 'Sandy Speaks', for social media and all of her videos had one thing in common in the days and months that led up to her fateful arrest and death.
She spoke about the Black Lives Matter movement and how she wanted to be a social activist to educate both black and white people so they respect each other better. At the end of the day, all she tried to do was minimize the amount of violence that had started to grip the country.
Bland, or Sandy as she is affectionately called by those close to her, was a woman of great character and personality. She knew exactly what her purpose in life was and was all set to go out there and make a difference. Unfortunately, the universe had other plans for her.
On July 10, 2015, Sandy was in her vehicle out to buy groceries when she was pulled over by Trooper Brian Encinia with the Texas Department of Public Safety for a minor traffic infraction. Her crime? She did not indicate she was changing lanes. Dashcam footage of the trooper's patrol car, released months after the young woman's death, showed everything went fine and Sandy complied to all his requests until he tells her to stub her cigarette.
A brief argument ensues and then the trooper is seen yanking Sandy out of her car. Once again this forces you to ask the question, "What did she do wrong? What was her crime?" The answer, according to the county authorities led by Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith is that she assaulted a public servant and that she was uncooperative and combative.
Directors Kate Davis and Brian Heilbroner made sure the viewer also notices that the alleged assault on the trooper takes place out of view of his dashcam. Fortunately, a bystander was there filming the rest of the events and the video later went viral. It clearly shows two officers pinning a young black woman down for something they only claim she did.
Footage of Waller County Jail is shown where Sandy is being booked and checked like she is some sort of violent gangster. Three days after she was arrested and taken to the jail, on July 13, she was found hanging from a plastic bag noose in her solitary confinement cell.
It is at this point that, as a viewer, you start to get the sense something fishy is going on. From this point on in the documentary, you see both sides of the investigation. On one side you see her determined mother and sisters who have vowed to their fallen family member that they will get to the bottom of this. On the flip side, you see jail officials and the District Attorney's Office, led by Elton Mathis, also trying to find out what happened in the jail, albeit in a rather suspicious way.
The story, even without considering the documentary, brings up more questions for the viewer than provides answers. When the public found out what happened there were mass protests across the country. The parent movement of Black Lives Matter now had to come to terms with one more death. Not all the protests were peaceful and some turned outright violent.
Cannon Lambert was brought on by Sandy's sisters and mother to fight for her case. This is when the directors start establishing a timeline in the days that led up to Sandy's death. With each new discovery that the family and the attorney with his team make, the case gets more and more sinister.
One of the first things Lambert noticed in the jail records is that there were 21 calls that Sandy made from the inside but there was no record of them. In the documentary, Lambert says: "The lead investigator for the Texas Rangers, Shane Ellison, had told us that specifically, Sandy made upwards of 21 phone calls, yet they tell us they don’t know what phones she used to make these 21 calls. That doesn’t make sense to me."
He continued: "They showed us some photographs of her body in the cell. They did not have any photographs that depicted her hanging, and we were told explicitly that they don’t exist."
Another thing that will strike you as odd is the fact that the plastic bag that Sandy allegedly hanged herself with did not have her DNA on it. Not on or around where it was tied to the partition, or generally where her fingers would have been tying the knot. In fact, there was no DNA on it whatsoever.
All the claims by the grand jury that DA Mathis put together were also not helping Sandy's family solve the mystery any quicker. Aside from the glaring loopholes in the evidence provided by the Waller County Jail, there were also major inconsistencies with the evidence that was given from the medical examiner.
They claimed Sandy had high levels of THC from marijuana use in her system. The grand jury also brought up the fact that she had been arrested twice before on marijuana possession charges. Everyone outside of law enforcement knows Sandy spent her required time in jail and thus had no problems with the law. They connected this to her alleged suicide attempt once before when she had a miscarriage.
The family ordered an independent autopsy and Dr. Joye Carter found a lot of things that the grand jury's medical examiner missed. This included mysterious bruising and scratches on her body that was not consistent with a suicide. Other than suspicious pieces of evidence such as these, many conspiracies started popping up online. The most famous one was about her mugshot. According to many social media users and avid conspiracy theorists, Sandy was already dead when the picture was taken. Shortly after this, a large group of protesters stormed Waller County Jail in Sandy's name demanding answers to how she died.
Trooper Encinia was subsequently fired on a charge of perjury and the grand jury started an investigation into jail officials. When this happened, Lambert realized that the jailer who had been filling out the jail log on the day Sandy was found dead was all wrong. The timings for when he checked on her in the cell and when she was actually supposed to have died did not match and the officials brushed it under the table as "he would've been looking only at jail cell numbers and not who was in it per se".
After a lot of back and forth, the documentary finally decided to stop its search for the truth once the family decided that they wanted to focus on the future and not the past. The court ordered that the family and DA's office go into mediation in August 2016 and that lasted for 8 hours. All those hours, however, brought something fruitful for the family.
The Sandra Bland Act is currently a law in Texas that mandates state-wide reforms to increase prison inmate safety, and the US Congressional Black Caucus was held to speak about how to better improve in the country. The documentary ends with the news that in June last year, former Trooper Encinia had all charges against him dropped courtesy DA Mathis' office. No one was ever held criminally accountable for Sandy's arrest, injuries, or death ever since.
HBO's latest documentary offered a lot of keen insights into the famous case by way of interviews with everyone involved from both sides, but the lack of clarity in the actual case did not help the directors much with what they could do for the film.
After tailing the family for two years while they were conducting an investigation of their own, it becomes clear that there are many questions that we may never know the answers to. I've had many questions as well while writing this piece and I can only hope that at some point in the future we may get the answers we need.
Until that time, watch HBO's 'Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland'. It premiered on the channel December 3 at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT and is a must watch for all fans of true crime documentaries.