“He looked like kids I grew up with,” Jay Z remembered meeting Kalief Browder, who has become a rallying cry for criminal justice reform in America after he was arrested at sixteen under suspicion of robbery, imprisoned without conviction for three years on New York City’s notorious Rikers Island, and committed suicide in 2015, two years after his release.
Jay Z met Browder after reading about his story in the New Yorker, and remembered identifying with the young man on an intimate level. “There were many instances when I could have gotten myself into trouble. And I was doing things,” he said.
The occasion for discussing Browder’s story was Spike’s new docuseries “Time: The Kalief Browder Story” on which Jay Z and Harvey Weinstein serve as executive producers as part of a two-year deal to produce film and TV projects. The duo anchored a rotating panel during Wednesday night’s town hall forum that aired live on Spike, hosted by Gayle King, that also included Browder’s family, lawyers, journalists, director Jenner Furst and “Saturday Night Live’s” Michael Che.
Che and Jay Z both shared stories about gaining perspective while growing up in New York City. Che said that, when he started attending arts high school in Manhattan, he met kids for the first time who traveled for leisure. “I thought you had to win ‘The Price Is Right’ to go on vacation,” Che said.
Similarly, Jay Z spoke about never stepping foot in Manhattan until high school, despite growing up one borough away. “I remember seeing Central Park and I cried,” he said.
Weinstein commented at one point that Browder’s story is “so unbelievably due in America.”
After the hour-long town hall, Variety caught up with Furst to talk more about creating the six-episode series.
As a young kid I broke the law a lot,” Furst said about his personal draw to the docuseries. “And I didn’t have to deal with the same standards that Kalief did.”
Furst spoke about the “intimate” early stages of filming with Browder’s family. “It was over a half a year before Jay and Harvey got involved,” he said. “So we were in that house alone together talking about truth, talking about pain, talking about Kalief.”
He added, “It was extremely intimate and in that moment it was therapeutic. They needed to talk.”
Furst, like the rest of the series’ creators and collaborators, hopes that the story will be able to cross political party lines and enact change in how the prison and legal systems in America are run.
“This isn’t right, and I think it’s not right for a lot of reasons and they have nothing to do with being a Democrat or a Republican,” Furst said, citing Republican Senator Rand Paul as a major advocate for Browder’s story. “I think that there’s an opportunity for us to come together and look beyond the obvious things that divide us to come to one common conclusion that if this was your son, your brother, your friend going through something like this, you would do everything in your power to stop it.”