On the 14th floor of HBO’s office I am instantly greeted by Sandra Bland’s face when I walk into the conference room.
I see two women, Sharon Cooper and Shante Needham, who if given a brief glance, would pass for their deceased sister. They are warm and very welcoming. The spirit of Sandra Bland is definitely in the room.
On any other occasion, it might’ve felt like we were gathered to talk about something less heavy. As we greet one another and prepare to dive into the discussion, the imagery of Sandra’s face embedded onto Needham’s shirt won’t let me forget.
We are here to talk about HBO’s latest documentary, Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, which documents the events leading up to the death of their beloved sister, who was found hanged in a Texas jail (Waller County) three days after being pulled over by former officer, Brian Encinia.
The completed project shows never before seen footage and details what transpired from Sandra’s arrest on July 10, 2015, to her death on July 13, 2015. The film also touches on Sandra’s impact and how her death became a literal representation of the undocumented state-sanctioned violence that many Black women in America face, birthing the rallying call, #SayHerName.
“I think what we have managed to do is fully document what families go through in the aftermath of this,” Cooper said. “It really all comes down to I think historically, people who don’t have the proper or appropriate intel or access, have been telling our stories, and they tell our stories to the exclusion of us.”
For the past three years Sandra Bland’s family undertook an unthinkable task. They have repeatedly witnessed the events leading up to their loved one’s death in watching dash cam footage of her arrest. They’ve read and negated online commentary written by people who never knew Sandra. They’ve sat through a long legal battle advocating for some form of justice. And all the while, they’ve had to process the stages of grief.
“As you can only imagine, this was very, very, very raw. And to have to relieve it over and over and over again, it put a lot of emotional stress on a person,” Needham said.
Just two weeks after Sandra’s death, HBO contacted Sandra’s family to begin documenting. HBO enlisted award-winning filmmakers, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, to tell the story, who followed the events as they unfolded on social media and in the news. In total, from start to completion, the film took about two and a half years. For the filmmakers who’s life work is based in civil rights and activism, Sandra’s case enlisted a series of challenges and mystique which made her specific story unique.
“We were also drawn to the story because it was one more situation where a person of color died at the hands of cops–at the hands of police, whether literally or not. She was in custody in this case, all too often it was happening on the streets,” Davis said.
“Editing this film was doing a really complicated braiding. It’s a mystery. It’s a death in custody. It’s also a portrait of a woman as she becomes woke and empowered. It’s also a political parable of race in America,” said Heilbronner.
As white filmmakers, Davis and Heilbronner are in complete alignment with what it means to tell a Black woman’s story, putting their own biases and privilege into examination during and after filming as they forged a tight bond with Sandra’s family during the process.
“I’m just gonna note the elephant in the room. No Kate and Dave don’t look like the broader part of this community that’s being impacted, but they’re truth tellers,” said Cooper.
“They just seemed so genuine, they cared,” Needham said.
As filmmakers, Helbronner and Davis did their best to use all of the voices involved in the case, conducting on camera interviews with Sandra’s family and Waller County authorities. According to Davis, Brian Encinia was the only person who declined to participate in the film.
Remarkably, Sandra’s voice narrates the documentary using snippets from her video blog, “Sandy Speaks.”
“Sandy utilized a very free platform to speak her truth and to express herself, and so it was this digital memorialization of her that I don’t even think she realized that she was making at the time,” said Cooper. “And to be able to leverage that throughout the film and have her appear as the voice narrating her own documentary, that’s powerful and I don’t think that we take a step back and are just in awe of that and how powerful that is and how social media, because it does give us the power to connect and build community, we connected and built so much community through the duration of that case,” Cooper said.
Social media and the news media played a large role in Sandra’s case, setting a tone for public perception in regards to the narrative. It presented rewarding but oftentimes difficult challanges for all involved; the family, filmmakers and the family’s legal counsel, Cannon Lambert.
Lambert helped the family secure a $1.9 million in a civil settlement and also assisting the family in navigating a difficult and painful legal terrain.
Encinia was fired by the Texas Department of Public Safety in March 2016 after a grand jury indicted Encina over falsifying Sandra’s arrest report. The Sandra Bland Act was signed into law in June 2017 offering an investment in de-escalation tactics for officers and awareness surrounding mental health.
But a few days after the Sandra Bland Act was signed, the perjury charge was dropped against Encinia. Sandra’s case begs the question surrounding the definition of justice.
“Justice is evasive,” said Lambert. “I don’t think you ever go into it believing that you as a lawyer have the ability to bring about justice. What you have the ability to do though is to shepard families through a very difficult terrain so that they can come away feeling like they were heard,” he said.
Forgiveness is also an idea which Sandra’s family does not feel committed to take up. Needham and Cooper both expressed that the first step to forgiveness is an apology, which they believe has not been issued on behalf of Waller County authorities. But through their pain, the family has found time to heal using therapy, journaling and by supporting other families who have experienced the same difficulties.
“We will never be the same. Holidays, birthdays, marriages, kids, grandkids. She’s gonna miss all of that. And why?” Needham said.
“Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland” premieres Monday, December 3 at 10 p.m. (EST) on HBO.