Seven years ago, a 16-year-old boy named Kalief Browder was plucked off Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, after being misidentified as a suspect in the theft of a backpack. Though he denied wrongdoing, he was taken to Rikers Island after a brief interrogation. There, he was held without trial for three years despite having never been convicted. Most of that time was spent in solitary confinement. He was finally released in 2013, but by all accounts he was irrevocably changed. On June 7, 2015, at the age of 22, Kalief Browder died by suicide.
The injustice of his experience was famously chronicled in a New Yorker story by Jennifer Gonnerman, as one example of how the common injustices inflicted upon black and brown kids in New York City can and will upend promising futures: the racial profiling upon which stop-and-frisk is based, and the devaluation of humanity required to create the school-to-prison pipeline, which particularly preys on impoverished communities. Browder was, by all accounts, a lively and smart kid who was destroyed by the carceral state. One of the many tragic aspects of his story is that his bail was set at $3000, initially far too much for his family to afford.
Since the world learned of Kalief Browder, he’s been held up as a perfect example of the need for prison reform, particularly in the case of minors, but his story has not been quite so painfully, and painstakingly, told as in Time: The Kalief Browder Story. Written and directed by Jenner Furst, whose narrative skills are as sharp and unflinching as they need to be, the first episodes of the six-part documentary series are profoundly difficult to watch—and yet because we are able to see through CCTV what Browder actually endured, there’s a sense of necessity attached: it feels urgent to bear witness.
In the first episode, after footage of Browder in the interrogation room—just 16, fresh-faced, unwavering and calm in his proclamations of innocence—Jay Z appears; he and Roc Nation acted as producers on the project, but in this capacity he is being interviewed as Browder’s friend. It is telling, perhaps, that here the superstar rapper is uncharacteristically soft and earnest, testament to the impact that knowing Browder had on him. “I believe our prophets come in many shapes and forms,” he says. “Sometimes our prophets come in the form of young, undeveloped energy that will teach all us grown-ups to love better and have more compassion. And Kalief Browder was a prophet.”
This is not just a grand proclamation by a man prone to boasts but something that, if you do not believe it now, will come to believe to be true. But more importantly, as Time subtly reminds us throughout its first two episodes, Kalief Browder was, in essence, a child. At a screening Tuesday night in New York City, Kalief’s older brother Akeem beseeched viewers to remember that Kalief and all the teenagers currently incarcerated at Rikers Island are “just kids.” Kalief Browder was a kid when he was arrested. He was a kid as he sat in the interrogation room with his friend, also accused, but no lawyer. He was a kid when he was taken to prison and thrown into a population where survival requires physicality. And Browder was a kid when we see security footage of him being brutally beaten in Rikers by fellow kids. (We see one adult on camera: a corrections officer who observes but does nothing to stop the brawl, as she casually leans against a wall.) They are teenagers caught in a system of poverty and institutionalized racism that sees them not as adolescents but, instead, as “animalescents,” as they were sometimes referred to in prison. The inhumanity is grotesque.
“Where were the white prisoners?” a young man, imprisoned at the same time as Browder, wonders in the second episode. They were not in Rikers, or if they were they were almost immediately released; footage reminds us that Dominique Strauss Kahn, the French former IMF head accused of raping an immigrant maid in his Manhattan hotel room, was released from jail after one day on $5 million bail; that was in May 2011, and by that time Browder had been imprisoned for a full year without a trial. It took Kalief’s mother, Venida, two weeks to scrape together the $900 she needed for a bail bondsman to free her son, but the bond was held due to probation violation. Browder had a prior felony—after being caught for joy-riding in a bread truck with a friend, a childlike infraction, he was put on probation for five years.
Time is an especially demanding documentary, and that’s why it is so exceptionally important; in its first two episodes, it takes us through each step of Kalief’s life, with a style that cuts between his own words—as stated in the 2015 deposition he gave in his lawsuit against the city for constitutional rights violations—and one single interview filmed in what seems to be Midtown New York.
In the interview, he wears a leather Pelle Pelle jacket and sits on a concrete step; he is shy about discussing his ordeal, stopping when someone walks by, but also with eyes that are assessing, that have seen too much. He is 21, but says he feels like he is 40, prematurely aged from what he endured. He seems quiet and sweet, and in particular mentions the people around him in business suits, reiterating that he would, one day, like to “be like them.” We’re reminded again that he would never grow up to do so in shots of his mother Venida, now deceased, speaking lovingly about him in past tense.