On May 15, 2010, 16-year-old Bronx native Kalief Browder was arrested for the alleged theft of a backpack. For this minor offense, Browder was imprisoned in New York’s notorious Rikers Island for three years, where he was physically and mentally brutalized, spending the majority of his time in solitary confinement, in inhumane conditions, as his trial was continually pushed back by indifferent, overworked attorneys. While Browder was offered countless plea deals that would result in an early release, he declined, unwilling to admit guilt for a crime he did not commit.
Though he was eventually released, in June 2015, Browder committed suicide—another young African American broken by an unfair system—which is where Jenner Furst’s six-part Spike documentary series Time: The Kalief Browder Story picks up.
Executive produced by Harvey Weinstein and Jay Z, Time operates in the vein of Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated 13th, deconstructing each layer of corruption and each broken cog in America’s criminal justice system. Examining the torture prisoners go through, the series demonstrates the pervasive destructive power of this system, as Browder’s mother Venida watches her own health decline—eventually dying, unable to cope with the trauma of the injustice her son experienced.
Speaking with Deadline on the second anniversary of Browder’s death, Furst discusses dramatic systemic improvements that have resulted from the series, and the distance our country has to go to create meaningful, necessary change.
At what point did you first hear the name Kalief Browder?
Being in New York, Kalief Browder’s name starting coming up in 2013, when he got out. I think that for all of us in New York, it was one of those neck-turning stories. How could this happen? How could this happen to a child?
It wasn’t until he passed that we became committed to telling his story, because we felt the evening news and the local reporting was never going to be able to immortalize this young man like a series could.
What was the process of gaining access to your doc subjects—particularly, Kalief Browder’s relatives—and how did you gain their trust?
Being a biographer and getting underneath the life of a subject who is no longer with you is a really surreal experience. Very soon after he died—within a couple weeks—we were sitting face to face with his mother and his family. Luckily, they were familiar with the work that I had done in the community, tackling issues of the war at home and racial disparity, and injustice in America.
I don’t think you can ever fake this type of trust. I think it takes a lot of eye-to-eye conversations, a lot of hand-holding, a lot of hugging, and a lot of genuine connection, because people suffering from this type of pain can see through all layers of bullsh*t. If you have bullsh*t in your heart, it’s not easy to gain trust, so we had to keep our hearts clean and clear, and pursue this with the utmost integrity, and that’s what we did.
Some of the most fascinating subjects in the doc are those who admit to their own wrongdoing—corrupt correctional officers, for example. What were their motivations in participating in the doc?
I think we all have pain, and we all have a story to tell. The way that we always approach interviews is to leave them open-ended and explore every layer of humanity that could exist for these people. We said, “You had a tough job. It’s not easy to keep control of boys in a Lord Of The Flies environment, where they have knives, and they’re huge kids who could beat the sh*t out of you.”
The guards responded very open-mindedly and were clear that they had essentially lived a life of sin in there, but wouldn’t you?
What do you make of figures in the doc like former Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson—African Americans in power who are enabling this system of institutionalized slavery?
I think that one of the biggest wake-up calls to see on Twitter each time the episodes were airing was when people began to make the connection that most of the COs abusing [Browder] were of color; that the District Attorneys were of color; that the judges who violated him in the worst way were of color; that the union president was of color.
It shows a layer of nuance that doesn’t make it as easy as it seems to solve the problem. In fact, it makes us dig a lot deeper to realize what’s really happening.
I think when you get to the core of it, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. When you get to people of power, like the DA, the money that came with that, or just the social capital of it corrupted them, and they abandoned their people and their community. I think it’s a cautionary tale for folks getting into public service, not to forget about what really matters—and that’s your constituents and your union members, or your young men who don’t deserve to be tortured for a backpack.
I think it’s a complex issue, and I think Ava [DuVernay]’s film [13th] is a great CliffsNotes version of this story. Ava’s film and our film gives you a chance to take off the racial glasses that make us think this is a black-and-white story, and realize there’s a million shades of gray here.
How did you get access to prison footage and other visual elements necessary to tell the full story?
As a journalist, I value my sources, and I wouldn’t expose them under any condition. That said, a lot of the footage that you see in the film that isn’t CCTV or an interrogation video is stuff that we were able to gather inside Rikers Island, when we were finally granted access after two years.
My proposal was in way before Jay or Harvey were involved. They didn’t pay it much mind. Of course, when Jay and Harvey get out in the news, now all of the sudden we have an issue—we’ve got to show these guys something.
So I get into Rikers Island, and mostly it’s a dog-and-pony show. They’re showing me how they just painted this facility, and how these kids now get to play basketball for an hour extra. There’s a new woodworking studio. But of course, our cameras were rolling in every single direction, and we were seeing the place for what it really was.
Time is repeatedly shocking. What was the most shocking revelation to you in making this series?
There’s all these different levers to the system, and each one is shocking—to think that if he had that $900 [for bail] that night, he could have gotten out. But the fact that there are these moving cogs and levers that then grab your leg right as you’re about to get out, if you’ve been there for maybe one week too long, or that probation violation, or all these different things that can come up to haunt you—that, of course, is a shocking revelation.
Learning the brain science, and learning what 15 days of solitary will do to somebody, and do to an adolescent, and then to make the connection that he had endured 400 days of consecutive solitary confinement before he was 18 years old, where he was starved and beaten, and denied toilet paper, denied a shower. Those are the type of things that really affect you.
Learning the trip his mother made multiple times a week, with congestive heart failure and diabetes, having to take a four-hour public transportation voyage to literally travel five miles, as the bird flies. It took four hours to get there for her to see her son. Those type of things, I think, change your perception of what we’re really working with here.
I think ultimately, to learn the systemic violations that were happening to youth all across New York City and the country—something I know in a cursory way, or something you can see in a film like Ava’s, but really look at it on a human level, and to take Kalief, and let him be that messenger for the whole country—everywhere we looked, every stone we turned, was a new fact that I think opened peoples’ eyes.
What did Jay Z and Harvey Weinstein bring to the project, which will soon be streaming on Netflix?
I think it’s important to give Viacom some credit, because so far, the film has reached about 40 million people. For a documentary to get to that many eyes, before Netflix, I think is absolutely exceptional. This is a documentary, you know? This is not Dancing With The Stars, or American Idol. This has reached almost 40 million people, domestically, and this is pre-Netflix.
I think Netflix is an incredible opportunity to now reach the rest of the world—to reach 100-million-plus other viewers who are ready and able to watch it.
From the very beginning, the partnership with Jay and Harvey was about putting power and action behind this story, so that people could not look away. People could not deny. People could not conveniently decline to be involved, and everybody had to come to the table to come up with a solution.
To think of the things we’ve been able to accomplish since beginning, it’s absolutely remarkable. When we started, 16-year-olds were being treated as adults. Juveniles were in solitary confinement. There was a speedy trial law that hadn’t been passed, and that was allowing the same sort of things that happened to Kalief Browder. And Rikers Island was operating as it had operated for years.
Now, where we’re at, the age of responsibility has been raised. 16-year-olds are now not treated as adults in the state of New York, because of Kalief Browder. Now, 18-year-olds, like the rest of the country, are treated as adults. Speedy trial reform has happened in Kalief’s name. There’s a Speedy Trial law on the floor right now to stop the type of tricks that happened to Kalief Browder.
No juveniles are going to solitary confinement in Rikers Island anymore. And the pièce de résistance is when we were about to air the sixth episode, Mayor [Bill] de Blasio went out, because he had no other choice, and said he had to close down Rikers Island.
We’ve been able to accomplish that together, and that’s because of the commitment that Jay made, because of the commitment that Harvey made, and above all, because of Viacom’s follow-through. We’re at this remarkable precipice now that we’ve already done all that, and now we’re about to go to Netflix, where 100 million other people are going to see it.
I think the next step is for those folks to take a look at what’s happening in their local communities, and get their ass to the polls in 2018, and vote with their conscience and start voting down-ballot, because people like Robert Johnson were on a ballot. People like those judges are on a ballot. You have to start taking this seriously, because we do have the power to change the system that we’re within.
I don’t sleep much at night as an American. I think, what can I do? But I know that The Kalief Browder Story is a piece of work that falls in line with the type of consciousness that we need right now.
The sad part is that many people view this as a liberal, progressive issue. It isn’t. There’s countless folks in America who are white, who live in disenfranchised areas of this nation, who are suffering through the criminal justice system, and they need this reform, too. Because it doesn’t just prey on people of color—it preys on people who are poor, and it eats them alive.
We all have to get behind reforming this system right now. This is about keeping Kalief Browder’s name alive, and Venida Browder’s name alive, for integrity’s sake, and for what they died for. It has nothing to do with money—it has to do with the truth.