WHAT IT’S ABOUT Kalief Browder was a 16-year-old Bronx resident when he was stopped by police and accused by someone in the squad car of stealing his backpack. What happened next was to become the subject of considerable news coverage, renewed calls for Rikers Island reforms, and even an op-ed by President Barack Obama about the need to reform solitary confinement. Browder would spend three years at Rikers — without a trial — most of them in solitary. His mother could not put up the $3,000 bail. Browder insisted he was innocent and refused various plea bargains. Two years after his release, he committed suicide. This six-parter, produced by Jay Z and Weinstein Television and which launched last week, is based on lengthy interviews with Browder, family members, former inmates, correction officers, activists and many others.
MY SAY “Time: The Kalief Browder Story” is about a travesty of justice, but also about the travesty of time. The opening credits track over the interior mechanisms of some relic clock, as the gears spin and whir away, the implications obvious: Browder’s tragedy is about time lost, time stopped and time squandered. Rikers reform has been discussed for years, maybe decades, and just last year McKinsey & Co. was awarded a $7-million contract to figure out how to fix the place. But watching this remarkable film — even with its fresh interviews, fresh perspectives, and fresh facts — can leave the impression that nothing has changed, and maybe never will. That’s the “time stopped” and “squandered” part.
The time lost was Browder’s alone. In the opener last week, Jay Z said, “I believe prophets come in many shapes and forms, sometimes in the form of young, undeveloped energy that will teach all us grown-ups [how] to have more compassion. Kalief Browder was the prophet.”
Produced by Julia Willoughby Nason, Michael Gasparro and Nick Sandow (Caputo of “Orange Is the New Black”) and directed by Jenner Furst, the filmmakers clearly don’t want Browder’s short life to have been in vain, nor dismiss Rikers reform as a pipe dream. Just the opposite: Like any good prosecutor, they present their case, leaving no room for doubt. In this telling, reform is a necessity.
Last week’s opener explored Browder’s life story — his home life, an earlier run-in with the law (a ride with friends on a stolen bread truck), and resulting probation. Wednesday’s episode gets into the bowels of Rikers, and then deeper still. Producers use a considerable amount of closed-circuit footage to rebuild Browder’s life in Rikers, where inmates quickly sort out predator from prey. As a condition of survival, the prey sometimes become predator, too. Browder got into fights, and ended up in solitary, where former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik — who’s done time himself — offers one of the film’s more vivid descriptions of what happens next. In solitary, he says, “you run out of things to do, and when you do, it’s like dying with your eyes open.”
There are four hours to go with “Time,” more questions to be asked: How many others like Browder are in the system? Has corruption in the ranks of Rikers’ correction officers — a subject widely covered by the New York papers — been extirpated? What about that McKinsey blueprint? “Time” leaves one more impression, by the way: Answers, and a whole lot more, to come.
BOTTOM LINE Based on a look at the first two episodes, this particularly well-produced film insists that even in death, Kalief Browder can still change a broken system — and must.