Near the end of Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, Bland’s sisters, Sharon Cooper and Shante Needham, trudge through a heavy Chicago snow, meticulously clean her grave marker until it’s pristine, place a fresh bouquet of yellow roses, and tell her they love her. Then they blast “Uptown Funk” from a smartphone and have a mini dance party.
This, like so many other scenes in directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s new documentary, is as tearful as it is fun and loving. By all rights, Bland—who had her own eclectic taste in music, Cooper tells Paste—should have been bumping to Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ chart-topper with the rest of her family in some cozy kitchen that winter, laughing and happy. Instead, to the shock of those who knew her, Bland was found hanged in a Texas jail cell in July 2015. She’d been pulled over for a routine traffic stop, which quickly escalated—as evidenced by both the footage caught on the officer’s dashboard camera and a bystander’s video.
“It was a case that was so potent because of its eerie reverberations with the history of racism in America,” says Heilbroner, who with Davis, his wife, has made a number of incensing documentaries, including 2017’s Academy Award-nominated Traffic Stop, about another Texas police officer’s arrest of a Black person. “We’re talking about an African-American woman who was found hanged in the deep South.”
It was also a story that the duo signed onto quickly after news broke of Bland’s passing, connecting with the family through attorney Cannon Lambert, Sr. As a result, they (and therefore the viewers) get a front-row seat to the shock, anger and unimaginable pain that Cooper, Needham and the other members of the close-knit family experienced as more information—and misinformation—made its way into the public. While it’s certainly understandable that Needham says she “totally forgot that the cameras were even there,” it’s also a testament to the filmmakers that Cooper says, “David and Kate had a way of being present but silent, and allowing us to feel all the things we wanted to feel and… really just allow us to be.” When their mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, expresses her frustration at the assertion that she should be satisfied that arresting officer Brian Encinia receiving a perjury charge—tantamount to a slap on the wrist—you are right there with her in wanting more. (Especially since that charge has since been dismissed.)
The filmmakers also had access to another source: Bland herself. An advocate for social justice and obsessive researcher of African-American and civil rights history, Bland had not only developed a reputation for making thoughtful and inquisitive videos, which she shared on social media, she’d also kept materials and her own notations on past leaders who’d been brave enough to speak out. Footage from her funeral has the pastor comparing her to Jesus.
Heilbroner points out that this footage allows, in a way, for Bland to be the de facto narrator in a film about her own life and death: He and Davis made a point of using Bland’s voice as both the first and last word in this story. Still, Davis says any idea of a “martyr element is hard for me, personally.”
“[Sandra’s] willingness to take a risk [in] standing up [to] power and standing up for truth and asserting her rights, which she did in a very clear and straightforward and legal way,” is the story, says Davis. “In doing so, she was standing up for changing the narrative and not just being silent. She was like Rosa Parks refusing to go to the back of the bus… In doing so, her case went viral, and she ended up, eerily, educating people that this still goes on every day.”
Bland is also, as the film and its title note, the only woman in the list of victims most widely associated with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This is something all interviewed for this story attribute to sexism, particularly as regards women of color.
She was also a human being. The film doesn’t shy away from addressing her prior arrest for a DUI, or that she had recently lost a pregnancy—not that any of this matters when it comes to the circumstances surrounding her death.
“I’m always amazed at how deeply we dig into the background of a victim of color to substantiate and justify the reason that they died,” Cooper says, especially because these factors “had zero to do with what contributed to her death.”
Cooper and the directors also say the Internet’s attention to the case was a catch-22. As the film discusses, Bland’s name may be have become a trending topic, and her death did result in protests at the Waller County jail where she’d been held and around the world. But it also resulted in (sometimes well-meaning) conspiracy theorists and armchair detectives releasing non-vetted videos and screeds that seeped into press coverage from legitimate outlets and into the hands of trolls. The filmmakers have Lambert, the family’s attorney, play one of the veiled death threats he received. Officials in Waller County were similarly under attack. For this and other reasons, arresting officer Encinia and another individual from the jail, whom the filmmakers wouldn’t name, declined to be part of the film.
Heilbroner says, “This is a case that will forever remain with some mystery,” and that all the distractions may have hurt the case for wrongdoing in Bland’s death.
“Conspiracy theories are dangerous, not just because they get people fired up, but because they make people decide they want to go with their gut feeling rather than listening,” Heilbroner says. “Those conspiracy theories were primarily, not exclusively, launched against Texas law enforcement and made them, in turn, shut down. It’s a vicious cycle.”
Because of this, Cooper says, “we were very active on social media about providing updates from our personal pages to say, ‘This is an update that was coming from the family,’ because we were in the trenches of it.”
Bland’s case also entered the public consciousness alongside a wider cultural obsession with “true crime” programming, spearheaded by podcasts like Serial and documentary series like The Staircase and The Jinx: all addictive, fascinating stories with a whodunit element that made it easy for viewers to forget real families suffered the losses and injustices described therein.
Cooper gets that “we want people to get tied into finding a humanity behind the headlines,” but stresses that “we need to be putting ourselves in a position of relatability to understand that this could be your mother, your sister, your father, your uncle, your aunt, and think about how you’d want the world to respond if it were you.”
Similarly, she wants it known that she and the family do not hate law enforcement. She’s not surprised that “it’s extremely difficult to get law enforcement to engage in open discussion forums, because they feel like they’re going to be attacked.” However, she says, “there also has to be a willingness on their behalf to take accountability for the bad actors who are associated with their organization.”
Still, Cooper says, “we felt immensely supported and continue to feel supported by those who were so taken aback by what happened to Sandy, and felt personally impacted by it—because it really did raise [the] attention being paid to her case.”
In recent months, as the family has participated in screening Q&As and interviews, they’ve heard one refrain repeatedly, particularly from well-meaning (usually white) liberals: We’re just now realizing how bad a problem this is. What can we do? In answer to this, Cooper cites an audience goer at a screening in Canada who says it “wasn’t enough for the people of the majority to be allies in what we’re seeking to change here. You have to be an accomplice to change.”
“It is important to make sure that you… unpack privilege for people, and sometimes unpacking privilege means that it comes from people who benefit from it, whether it’s through socio-economic status, through gender, or through race,” Cooper says, stressing that more people need to understand the concept of intersectionality, or the analytical discussion of how society has systemically suppressed minority groups.
Plus, she says, we’re “telling the stories to never forget the owner of the story. Never forget to call out the family and also what their efforts have been and acknowledge them in a holistic way.” In other words: Say her name.
Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on HBO.