Toward the end of “Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story,” former state prosecutor Preston Shipp considers his shifting thoughts on the notion of justice. It’s shouldn’t be about alleging rule violations, he says, but about trying to achieve the right outcome in each case. In other words, for all the rigors of law and order, true justice isn’t procedural: it’s as changeable and untidy as human behavior itself. Tracing the contours and reversals of an ugly legal affair that initially saw underage sex worker Cyntoia Brown sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of an adult predator, Daniel H. Birman’s documentary is likewise most rewarding when it focuses on messy human complexities over chilly courtroom process. What begins as seemingly another lurid Netflix true-crime excavation emerges as a considerably more affecting testament to the damage wrought by generation upon generation of sexual abuse.
Many a casual viewer may recognize the subject’s name from a viral hashtag: Buoyed by an initial endorsement from Rihanna, with other celebrity supporters following in her wake, #FreeCyntoiaBrown rippled through social media platforms in an online sphere newly angered and energized by the #MeToo movement. By that time, Brown had been incarcerated for over a decade in her home state of Tennessee, having been convicted of first-degree murder as a mere teenager — following a court case that set aside such mitigating factors as the age and vulnerability of a 16-year-old child killing the middle-aged man who had solicited her for sex.
That was in 2004, and “Murder to Mercy” emphatically drives home the point that our collective legal and cultural understanding of such cases has evolved considerably in the last decade and a half: Where Brown was charged and tried as a prostitute, she would today be regarded in court as a victim of sex trafficking. This is a change in status and perspective now entrenched in Tennessee law: a critical factor in the long-delayed reevaluation of Brown’s case and a push for clemency. Birman tracks that progress in steady, linear fashion, working through attorneys and prosecutors, as the tight, tense strings of Jongnic Bontemps’ score contribute a general courtroom-drama snap to proceedings.
On those terms, “Murder to Mercy” is gripping enough if not exactly surprising — even to viewers who haven’t followed the prominent headlines around the case. But the film enters more challenging territory as its gaze turns more intimately inward, to focus on Brown’s familial history of violence, neglect and mental illness, and her attempt to build something more constructive from that unhappy legacy.
The most stirring and upsetting material here emerges from frank interviews taken, over the course of 15 years, with the three women who shaped, directly or otherwise, the subject’s upbringing: Brown’s biological mother Georgina Mitchell, whose substance abuse throughout her teenage pregnancy left her daughter with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder; her suicidally inclined biological grandmother Joan Warren, who permitted Georgina to be sexually molested by a neighbor from an early age; and her kindly adoptive mother Ellenette Brown, who believed she could protect her daughter from such hereditary misfortune and psychic pain.
Birman and editor Megan E. Chao collate these frank testimonies to complementary and occasionally conflicting effect, without demonizing any participant. The villain in this cavernously sad story is both vast and invisible, a sociopolitical tangle of patriarchal mores and authoritarian hard lines that were rigged against Brown before she ever pulled a trigger. Her story has a surging, hopeful finale: The 32-year-old woman we meet at the documentary’s close seems somehow younger yet wiser than the spiny teenager encountered in archive footage who describes herself as “old, tired and weary… setting myself up for failure.” Still, her happy ending (or happier beginning, if you prefer) isn’t unduly sentimentalized.
Rather, one leaves “Murder to Mercy” with the sense that many young women from Brown’s background will be similarly hardened, abused and punished in a society where they still have to battle to be heard and believed. Yet there are glimmering signals here of systemic repair, not least in the secondary story of Brown’s former prosecutor Shipp, now turned an advocate for justice reform and a crucial champion of her case. There is a multitude of smaller transformative arcs buttressing and elevating Cyntoia Brown’s here, to the extent that this slickly and conventionally constructed documentary occasionally seems to be cutting some narrative corners. Its key story, however, is urgent and finally defiant. Justice doesn’t simply prevail in “Murder to Mercy”; it has to change to come good.