Shawn “Jay Z” Carter has teamed with the Weinstein Co. to produce a docuseries about the story of Kalief Browder, the Bronx high school student who killed himself in 2015 after being held for three years on Rikers Island for allegedly stealing a backpack.
“Time: The Kalief Browder Story” is set to air as a six-part series beginning in January. The episodes will feature dramatic reenactments of Browder’s life as well as interviews with friends and family members and archival footage. Browder’s story of being thrown into solitary confinement without even being charged with a crime has galvanized prison reform efforts to ban isolationist policies for juvenile offenders.
The case has become a symbol of a broken criminal justice system. Browder maintained his innocence through his time behind bars, which was extended because his family could not afford the $3,000 bail. He was released in 2013 after his accuser left the country. He was 22 at the time of his death in June 2015.
Carter is an exec producer of “Time” for Weinstein Co. and his Roc Nation banner, along with Harvey Weinstein, David Glasser, Jenner Furst, Nick Sandow, Julia Willoughby Nason and Michael Gasparro. The series is directed by Furst.
Spike TV president Kevin Kay said the cabler was backing “Time” in a big way as part of an effort to expand the boundaries of its programming. As it shifts to a more general entertainment thrust, from its previous guy-centric orientation, Spike will periodically look to showcase programming about issues of substance.
“This is an important story to tell,” Kay said. ” ‘Making a Murderer’ and ‘Serial’ show you that there is a tremendous audience for these stories.”
Carter said Thursday a news conference in New York with Weinstein and others that he first became aware of Browder’s case through the 2014 New Yorker article, “Three Years on Rikers Without a Trial,” that chronicled his ordeal. Carter tasked his assistant with finding Browder. “I told her I need to meet this young man,” Carter said.
Carter’s assistant came through quickly. Browder met Jay Z at his New York office. “He told me he was going to college,” Carter said. “I wanted to give him words of encouragement.”
But not long afterward, Carter learned that Browder had killed himself. “I was thrown, of course,” Carter said. “I kept asking myself, ‘Man, the story’s not supposed to end like this.”
Carter and Weinstein had been talking for years about partnering on film and TV projects. When Carter brought the idea of a Browder docu-series to Weinstein, the two quickly worked out a first-look pact, with “Time” getting the go-ahead as the first project. “This was the linchpin of the deal,” Weinstein said.
Weinstein and Weinstein Co. COO David Glasser pitched the project to Kay earlier this year with Carter beaming in via remote from Miami. Weinstein admitted that they were also headed off to pitch “the usual suspects” (read: HBO, Netflix) but Kay and his team “wouldn’t let us out of the room.” “Time” got the greenlight on the spot.
“It’s hard to say ‘no’ to them anyway but when you put together a package of these filmmakers and a story that is so moving, it’s like ‘Let’s go,’ ” Kay said.
Weinstein Co.’s Dimension arm is already in business with Spike TV on another big project, the Stephen King adaptation “The Mist.”
Furst is an emerging documentarian who recently launched his Brooklyn-based Cinemart banner. He managed to obtain police footage of one of Browder’s interrogations, although he would not disclose how he came by the material. A clip screened during the news conference demonstrated that Browder was aware of the camera’s presence.
Furst is still at work on shaping the episodes, which means the series may run longer than six episodes, Weinstein said. “Whatever’s good, that’s what we’ll do,” he said.
Carter called Browder a “modern-day prophet” whose death helped put the spotlight on the need for prison reforms. “This young man got dealt a horrible hand,” he said. “I hope this story inspires others and saves the lives of others.”
President Obama recently signed legislation barring solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons. The filmmakers are working with the advocacy org Stop Solitary for Kids to push for state-level reforms. Browder’s mother, Venida Browder, appeared at Thursday’s news conference to promote the org’s work.
“It’s too late for my son but it will benefit other youths who will not endure what my son did,” Browder said.
(Pictured: Harvey Weinstein and Shawn “Jay Z” Carter)