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September 06, 2019

A Name to Remember

The unresolved death of Sandra Bland inspires a timely HBO doc.

Paula Chin
  • Protesters at New York City’s Washington Square Arch spell out Sandra Bland’s name on signs.

  • David Heilbroner

  • Kate Davis

In 2015, Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman from Chicago, was arrested for a minor traffic violation in Waller County, Texas.

Three days later, she was found hanged in her jail cell. Though ruled a suicide, her death sparked nationwide protests and explosive allegations that it was a racially motivated murder.

Ten days after the tragedy, director Kate Davis and producer David Heilbroner — whose award-winning civil rights documentaries include 2017’s Traffic Stop and 2010’s Stonewall Uprising — began covering the story.

Their latest collaboration, HBO’s Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, chronicles her family’s anguished quest for the truth — and justice. Was it served? The duo shared their thoughts with emmy’s Paula Chin.

What drew you to Sandra’s story?

Heilbroner: The unresolved nature of her death grabbed us. There was a mystery shrouding her tragic fate, and as journalists we wanted to know what really happened.

Davis: Given our country’s history of racism, Sandra’s death had a powerful symbolic resonance. Police overreach and brutality happen all too often, particularly to minorities. Also, women’s stories are not really told, so there was that aspect as well.

How difficult was it getting her family to participate?

DH: When I first reached out, I was concerned how a Texas family in the midst of their grief and a media firestorm would receive a white couple from the East Coast. But they looked at our previous work and decided to share their story. After that, the awkwardness went away.

KD: Even so, there is an incredible invasiveness filming people. It was sometimes painful to be by their side, and there were moments when we did put the camera down.

How did you originally approach the film, and did that change along the way?

DH: Whether it was murder or suicide, something had clearly gone wrong. I didn’t want it to be an indictment of anyone per se. We were looking for the truth. But with one bit of information here, and one bit there, we were all grasping at straws. It became apparent there would never be a resolution.

KD: Sandra was a formidable force, and my strong hunch is that she was murdered. Does that mean we tried to make a film to fit that viewpoint? Absolutely not. It was important to let audiences come to their own conclusion.

The documentary features several “Sandy Speaks” video blogs, in which she addresses everything from educating kids about black history to the importance of accepting “nappy” hair. What did that bring to the film?

DH: Everything. There are so many stories of people who died one way or another, and the challenge is bringing that person to life in 3D. Sandra did that for us by leaving a legacy of first-person selfies.

KD: You see all of her moods — angry, tired, frustrated, but always deeply caring. We also wanted to include her wit and charm. But it was eerie when she said she would change people’s minds about police brutality. She prophesied her own death.

You have been making documentaries together for 15 years. As a married couple, what are the challenges of working together?

DH: We like to joke and say, “Divorce never, homicide maybe.” We criticize each other pretty mercilessly, which is the cost of doing business, whether you’re married or not. We don’t take it personally, because it’s all about making the film better. You have to leave your ego at the door.

Sandra’s mother and sisters ended up settling their wrongful death suit against the police department for $1.9 million. How do you feel about the outcome?

DH: The family was at an impasse because of the lack of physical evidence, and they had to find a way to move forward. But the suit did result in legislation calling for changes to policing and jail standards.

KD: That does give me hope. Sandra’s message was clear and uplifting — don’t give up. And it lives on.

The release in May of a cellphone video recorded by Bland during the traffic stop has sparked calls by her family for a renewed investigation. Say Her Name is available on HBO Go.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2019

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