×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

‘Say Her Name’ Directors Discuss Importance of Showing Sandra Bland’s ‘Humanity’ Amid Tragedy

Sandra Bland went viral after dashboard camera footage showed state trooper Brian Encinia pulling her over for failing to signal while driving, and ultimately threatening to “light [her] up” and trying to pull her out of the car. But well before that 2015 incident, which ultimately led to her dying under mysterious circumstances in a jail cell, she was using social media to empower and educate. That is why filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, who directed “Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland,” wanted to start their documentary about her with one of her own videos.

In a piece that Bland originally shared on her Instagram account, she opens “Say Her Name” by saying, “Today #SandySpeaks is going to talk about white people.” It is a moment, Heilbroner points out, that often gets a laugh from the audience because it’s “an immediate disarming, witty side” of the woman. But the video goes deeper to ultimately discuss why it’s “really hard to be black in America,” which Heilbroner notes is “weirdly prescient” when one considers what happened to her.

“There are far too many cases like Sandy’s case where people ultimately die at the hands of law enforcement in a racially charged encounter, but they become a name on a list and their humanity is lost. Sandra gave us a really amazing opportunity to portray someone in three dimensions,” Heilbroner tells Variety. “It allows us an in and makes us pause to acknowledge her humanity, and that is something I think needs to happen if we’re going to get out of this terrible cycle.”

As the film goes on, Davis and Heilbroner continue to mix in Bland’s videos, often in extreme emotional turns, such as using a lighter piece about hair moments before showing the footage of her getting arrested. “Sandy had a great range as a person, so we wanted to do justice to all of the different facets of her character,” Heilbroner says.

Davis and Heilbroner reached out to Bland’s family “in the very early days of the case” in which the Harris County grand jury was looking into law enforcement’s culpability in Bland’s death. The documentarian duo worked carefully to “help them tell their story,” but because details and new evidence were unfolding in real life as they were filming, the challenge became “interweaving tracking the family’s own emotional journey and punctuating that with Sandra’s own voice,” says Davis.

Davis shares that she and Heilbroner did go into the film with “a civil rights agenda” because of just how prevalent violent and unjust treatment, particularly to people of color on the street by law enforcement, was, but they did not set out to make a “gotcha film.”

“We weren’t out to villainize the sheriff or the D.A. at all — that’s just going to polarize people. I don’t think it’s going to be helpful for the dialogue around racism and law enforcement. It would just get everyone’s walls up, and that’s exactly what Sandy talks about in the film — that we need to listen to each other,” she says.

And since they wanted to “give everybody a fair hand” in the way the story was portrayed, Davis continues, they had to also approach interviewing those on the law enforcement side, such as Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith, with just as open a mind as they did Bland’s family and friends. In doing so, both Davis and Heilbroner admit they were surprised by just how honest law enforcement officials such as Smith were with them.

“There are some moments in the film where they really do cop to [some things],” Davis says, adding that she and Heilbroner wanted to present their statements but “let the audience decide for themselves about whether they think they’re being honest or covering up something.”

Adds Heilbroner, “There are a lot of factual revelations throughout the film which create a tremendous sense of both mystery about what happened, but also reinforce that whatever happened to Sandra Bland was a result of essentially a woman being ganged up on by the system — whether someone came in there and strangled her … or whether the system falsely arrested her, beat her up by the roadside, put her in jail on bogus charges, threw her in solitary confinement, didn’t check on her the way they were supposed to.”

Those who have followed Bland’s story in the news already know how “Say Her Name” will end. But in addition to following the facts, the goal of “Say Her Name” was to ask its audience to “take a look in a mirror and realize we all have biases and triggers that we’re unaware of and can behave in ways, however well intended, that can have very, very dire consequences,” says Heilbroner.

“Sandy said [she was] going to keep calling out racism,” Davis points out. “That was a brave act. She was, in a sense, the Rosa Parks of this generation. It’s a message of bravery, of courage, of standing up to power, of not demonizing the other, but trying to work with them.”

“Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland” airs Monday at 10 p.m. on HBO.

More TV

  • Donald Trump

    HBO Fires Back at Trump's 'Game of Thrones'-Inspired 'No Collusion' Tweet

    HBO is firing back at President Donald Trump after he sent another “Game of Thrones”-inspired tweet in response to the release of a redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the Russia investigation. “Though we can understand the enthusiasm for ‘Game of Thrones’ now that the final season has arrived, we still prefer [...]

  • Joel Edgerton Headshot

    Joel Edgerton Joins Barry Jenkins' 'Underground Railroad' Amazon Series (EXCLUSIVE)

    Joel Edgerton has signed on for a role in the Barry Jenkins’ Amazon series “The Underground Railroad,” Variety has learned exclusively. Edgerton will play the part of Ridgeway, a slavecatcher. He joins previously announced cast members Thuso Mbedu, Chase W. Dillon, and Aaron Pierre. The role will mark Edgerton’s first regular TV role in some time. [...]

  • LAST MAN STANDING: 150'th Episode: L-R:

    'Last Man Standing' Renewed at Fox

    “Last Man Standing” has been renewed at Fox, Variety has learned. This is the second season of the family multicamera comedy that will air on Fox, but the eighth season overall. (Its first six years were on ABC before the Alphabet canceled the series. Fox picked it up a year later.) “‘Last Man Standing’ roared [...]

  • Lauren Corrao

    Freeform Taps Lauren Corrao to Replace Karey Burke as Original Programming Head

    Lauren Corrao has been named executive vice president of original programming and development for Freeform. Corrao takes over the role from Karey Burke, who was named the head of ABC Entertainment in November following the departure of Channing Dungey. Corrao will report directly to Freeform president Tom Ascheim. In her new position, Corrao will oversee [...]

  • Allison Mack Sex Cult

    HBO in Production on NXIVM Sex Cult Documentary Series

    HBO Documentary Films is currently in production on a documentary series exploring the NXIVM sex cult case, which implicated former “Smallville” actress Allison Mack among others. The series, which is to be directed by “The Square” and “Control Room” helmers Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, will follow a range of people who joined the NXIVM [...]

  • Barry Killing Eve Pose

    'Barry,' 'Killing Eve,' 'Pose' Among 2019 Peabody Winners (EXCLUSIVE)

    “The Americans,” “Barry,” “The End of the F***ing World,” “The Good Place,” “Hannah Gadsby: Nanette,” “Killing Eve,” “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj,” “Pose” and “Random Acts of Flyness” have been named the entertainment winners at this year’s Peabody Awards, Variety has learned exclusively. Additionally, “Sesame Street” has been named the winner of the Institutional Award [...]

  • Les Miserables BBC

    BBC's 'Les Miserables' Recreates the Dark World of Victor Hugo's Novel

    Director Tom Shankland didn’t want his “Les Miserables” to be anything like the stage-musical version of Victor Hugo’s sweeping historical novel, nor like the 2012 Tom Hooper feature-film musical.  For the BBC limited series — a drama starring Olivia Colman, Lily Collins, David Oyelowo and Dominic West, which aired the first of its six episodes in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content