Kalief Browder’s story is about time, but it’s also a tale of numbers.
In 2010, the 16-year-old Browder was picked up by the police on charges that were later — much later — dropped. As a teenager, he spent more than 1,000 days in the infamous Riker’s Island prison waiting for the disposition of his case, which involved a possible stolen backpack. He endured more than 30 court dates. This young man, who was never convicted of anything in relation to the alleged theft, spent at least 800 days in solitary confinement.
Another number: Browder, a native of the Bronx, was only five feet, five inches tall. He wasn’t a big person, yet, once inside Riker’s, he resisted the unimaginable pressure to ally himself with a gang. For that stance — which amounted to refusing to be part of “The Program,” a corrupt and dangerous system of violence and intimidation orchestrated by guards — Browder was beaten up again and again. No exact number is given in reference to the multiple attacks on him. That somehow seems appropriate, given that his sufferings, as depicted in “Time: The Kalief Browder Story,” begin to approach the infinite.
Yet Browder himself is not a tragic presence. Interviewed as a free man while walking the streets of New York, he smiles often; he clearly wants to put his questioner at ease. He imagines what his life would have been like if he’d been able to be a businessman — a “successful” person walking to a job, coffee cup in hand. Before Riker’s, he liked going to parties, playing video games, and participating in sports. He hung out with his friends on the block and always made everyone laugh.
“Before,” he says quietly, “I fit in.”
Once out of Riker’s, he no longer fit in; on camera, he has a bashful, sweet presence, but seems uncomfortable in his skin. In many ways, the six-part series “Time” is the real-life equivalent of HBO’s “The Night Of,” in which a young man was irrevocably altered by his stint in the correctional system, even though he was eventually cleared.
The Spike documentary doesn’t have the narrative polish of the HBO series, or the organizational solidity of Netflix’s “Making a Murderer.” But “Time” is an important contribution to the true-crime documentary genre, one that sheds light on a whole host of issues, among them, the treatment of prisoners under 18, the cumulative effects of the stop-and-frisk policy in New York City, the brutal history of Riker’s, the well-documented issues with solitary confinement in many different institutional settings, and the systematic hurdles presented by the bail system all over America.
Browder’s story has been told before, by The New Yorker and other publications, but “Time,” which has the music mogul Shawn “Jay Z” Carter as an on-camera presence and an executive producer, is a vital document. Director Jenner Furst has gathered not just interviews with Browder and his family and friends, he has also assembled valuable input from law-enforcement professionals, former guards, politicians, reformers, and journalists who covered the correctional system. Carter talks about friends of his who went to Riker’s and put their lives in danger just by trying to use the phone.
Those interviews provide useful commentary and context, but what sets “Time” apart from other crime documentaries is that you can see many of the violations of Browder and other young men happening right before your eyes. The documentary contains extensive excerpts from surveillance cameras inside Riker’s, where prisoners were encouraged to beat each other up and where the entrenched corruption benefited many guards (and offered some protections to inmates who participated). There are even pictures of the rat poison that was deliberately put in certain prisoners’ food. “The Program” was unforgiving.
Watching these young men in physical conflict with each other — moments that some of them narrate in later interviews — gives the viewer a visceral sense of the fear and brutality that pervaded the place. The show’s soundtrack is sometimes too overwrought; given how raw and powerful the Riker’s footage is, there’s very little need to amplify what it contains.
Between the guards and the gangs, Browder really had no chance at coming out even remotely unscathed, but “Time” wisely expands its scope beyond the years he spent in jail. He was, as a number of interviewees point out, born into the social-services system; he was taken away from his drug-addicted mother and brought up by a foster mother who later adopted him. His every scrape and infraction was documented by various social and judicial systems, including the time he and some friends went joyriding in a bakery van. The upshot was that when Browder filed suit against the authorities that had kept him locked up for years without bringing him to trial, opposing counsel had plenty of ammunition with which to attack him. All for a slight, friendly, yet haunted young man who was just 20 when he finally got out.
In re-creations (which aren’t necessarily a distraction), excerpts from depositions that appeared to be designed to shame and break Browder’s will are depicted: His entire past is brought up, and he must recount the dozens of beatings and degradations he suffered. Whatever the designs of the lawyers fighting Browder’s civil suit, what this recitation reinforces is the idea that the “system failed him every step of the way,” in the words of Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow.”
The first episode of “Time” jumps around a fair bit, but the second is more narratively coherent, as it explores the history and culture of Riker’s Island, which was, one learns, named for a man who collected bounties for capturing escaped slaves. Though it may veer into the melodramatic at times, “Time” has an important story to tell, and is imbued with a passionate desire to present every important aspect of the injustices done to Browder — and thousands of other men and women like him.
Though it uses Browder’s experiences to indict a whole system, to its credit, “Time” never loses sight of the man at the center of this case, who endured a tragedy as unforgettable as it is American.