‘The Killing of Breonna Taylor’ Struggles to Restore a Symbol’s Humanity: TV Review

The newest episode of FX's 'The New York Times Presents' takes on a case that needs more than an hour to do right by its subject.

Courtesy of FX

In the 175 days since Louisville police killed Breonna Taylor, she has become a fulcrum for a movement. Her unjust death, alongside too many others, galvanized a wounded nation into leaving their homes, taking up protest signs, demanding justice and the kind of accountability from law enforcement that rarely comes. By design of those drawing attention to her case, her face has become ubiquitous at rallies, on magazine covers, on Instagram grids. She’s become, for better and for worse, a symbol of what happens when unchecked policing and racism collide. This deification can serve a purpose, but it also strips a person of their inherent humanity. Before Breonna Taylor was a hashtag, she was a human being.

With “The Killing of Breonna Taylor,” documentarian Yoruba Richen and the New York Times try to investigate and explain exactly how this happened to a 26 year-old EMT who spent her last minutes falling asleep during a game of Uno. It overall does an admirable job trying to address both the reality of Taylor’s life and paint the bigger picture of what her death has meant. But even if this weren’t an ongoing and ever-evolving case, “The Killing of Breonna Taylor” just can’t cover everything it touches in enough depth. There are conservatively three different episodes within this single one, each worthy of more time and space than this single hour can afford it.

The first third of the hourlong special breaks down the night itself, creating a straightforward, but intricate timeline of what actually happened. The second part digs into the aftermath, confusion and calls for an investigation. The third skims the surface of Kentucky’s history and Taylor’s place within it — an understandable instinct given the enormity of the movement surrounding her, but one that nonetheless leads to a rushed ending for a case that doesn’t have an ending at all. Throughout the hour, the documentarians speak with her grieving family — including her cousins, mother Tamika Palmer and boyfriend Kenneth Walker — who all describe her as enthusiastic, ambitious and “full of life.” They speak with her neighbors and her family’s lawyers, most downright baffled by how quickly the police lost control of the situation. In some of the documentary’s most startling scenes, it plays the first statements of both Walker and one of the officers, Sargeant Jonathan Mattingly. In one clip, we hear Mattingly laying out his version of events; in the other, we hear Walker, sobbing in pain.

In these moments, you can feel a tension familiar to TV documentaries that cover devastating real life trauma. The Killing of Breonna Taylor” struggles to keep focus between laying out the facts of the case, humanizing those involved, explaining its greater significance and, unfortunately, leaning on some true crime tropes (like distractingly dramatic music and shots of ominous shadows) that threaten to undercut the severity of the subject matter. There could be a version of this documentary that manages to strike a balance between it all, but it would by all rights be five times as long and in depth than this one could be.

“The Killing of Breonna Taylor” premieres Friday, September 4 at 10 pm on FX.