Can criminal justice TV series and documentaries go beyond entertainment and help us fix a broken system?
Bertolt Brecht is quoted as saying, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” In terms of television, one could argue that first-time filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Riccard achieved this with their award-winning hit Making a Murderer. As many of you know (nearly 20 million people binged on the 10-part miniseries within 30 days), this unflinching documentation of our broken criminal justice system in action tells the story of a man named Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey as they’re devoured by “the machine.”
Granted, this criminal justice TV series covers only one incident in middle America — Manitowoc County, Wisconsin — but the entire system comes across seared by the microscope, its failings all too obvious in this context. You walk away from this show with a lump in your throat and that heavy sinking feeling in your gut. Whether you believe Avery and Dassey to be guilty or innocent, you can’t help but be changed by this story as you watch it unfold. Now you know there’s a problem, and it’s not so simple to forget it. Such is the role of art in culture — not only to not hold up the mirror but to drive the message home.
Of course, America’s broken criminal justice system is no secret. We all seem to know justice in this country can be blinded by both power and money, but for many Americans it appears to be on such a huge and macro level in contrast to our daily lives. For some of us, this problem seems so far away. Untouchable, even. A world and a half away from home. But what Making a Murderer accomplishes is that it brings the concept to our level — to our communities. Injustice could be taking place right under your nose. Would you even notice it? What would you do if you did? Even worse, what if you found yourself trapped in the same sticky web? What then?
The Avery family is comprised of simple people. They are not perfect by any means (but “cast the first stone,” right?). However, I can’t shake the rotten knowledge that our justice system has failed them. I stared at my TV wondering, “Who is looking out for them?” And really, who is looking out for the most vulnerable in our society? Apparently not the criminal justice system. These people never had a chance.
Undoubtedly, that’s the bucket of ice water the documentarians had planned for me — for all of us — to experience. It’s so easy to get lost in the noise of the media, all of those perfectly polished talking heads, but when was the last time you heard a pundit or a reporter tell a story about the little guy or the average person without many connections or much education or wealth? Maybe it takes an artist to notice.
Then again, would our society even have been receptive to the tale of Steven Avery had it not been for the success of TV programs such as CSI, Forensic Files, MTV’s Unlocking the Truth or Orange Is the New Black? I feel as if I’ve grown up with this programming, which is best described by one Dateline producer seen on Making a Murderer, who explains: “Right now, murder is hot. That’s what everyone wants. That’s what the competition wants, and we’re trying to beat out the other networks to get that perfect murder story.” Just like most of America, I’d reveled in those programs, idolized them, even. Hell, an image of CSI’s Gil Grissom (William Petersen) was on my biology binder in high school!
And week after week, I tuned in to the crime investigation program and marveled how science and technology could be major tools in catching the bad guy. And thanks to the way these programs were structured, I wanted law enforcement to catch the monster who’d killed that nice woman or jogger or teen, with the help of DNA, fibers or whatever else was on the scene. I never once wondered if that same evidence could be used against an innocent person in court. Each time The Who started blaring out of my television, my 14-year-old brain failed to wonder, “Could this system be rigged?” After all, we’ve always been told law enforcement is good, bad guys are guilty as hell. And if you were accused and innocent, all you needed was a good lawyer to clear your name. It was all so deceptively simple.
Of course, when I was even younger than 14, rollerblading past the courthouse and local jail in my hometown — the inmates pounding on the narrow windows covered with bars — it was comforting to think there was balance, justice and fairness in the world in which the bad guys got locked up and the innocent among us got to rollerblade right on by. But if one looks at the numbers, it seems the United States is disproportionately filled with “bad guys.”
In 2016, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, there were over 2.4 million people locked up in America. Our country has nearly 2,000 state prisons, over 100 federal ones, close to 1,000 juvenile correctional facilities and more than 3,000 local jails. That’s not even taking into account all the immigration detention facilities, military prisons, civil commitment centers and prisons located in other U.S. territories. No wonder the U.S. has more people incarcerated than any other country on the planet — we’ve got to keep up demand to fill these facilities. Naturally, innocent people get locked away in the process, with the average innocent individual spending at least nine years in prison before they are exonerated. And one in every 25 defendants on death row is later proven innocent. If you were that one, how would you cope with your chances?
But we’re told that we need these prisons. “There are criminals on the streets!” “Our lives are in danger!” “Lock ’em up and throw away the key!” We seldom stop to wonder why there has been a 500% increase in the incarcerated population of the U.S. over the past 30 years. Honestly, over the past decade, the issue has barely crossed my mind. I didn’t know anyone in jail. I wasn’t on trial for anything. I felt safe, innocent and free. I’d watched Orange Is the New Black and knew it felt sanitized or, rather, commercialized; but their character vignettes helped me to understand how easy it was for someone to get locked into this form of purgatory — to have their lives ripped from them because of one mistake or stupid decision. But I didn’t do anything about it. It wasn’t my problem.
I didn’t even start to wake up until U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont called our nation’s prison statistics an “international embarrassment.” I’d seen the footage from Ferguson, and I’d watched the marches in Chicago as well as the protests in my home state of Louisiana — all from the comfort of my laptop. But now I was forced to face the cold, hard facts, which I absorbed on YouTube: that one in 31 American adults are “in the system,” that most are men under the age of 40, and that, if you’re Black, you’re more likely to be arrested than someone who is white. In fact, if you’re a young Black man, you are six times more likely to be arrested than your white counterpart. And 37% of Black men without a high school diploma between the ages of 20 and 34 are incarcerated.
Those are “yuge” numbers, and not even taking into account police brutality, racism, harassment and the fact that even though Black Americans make up 12% of regular drug users, they account for nearly 40% of all people arrested for drug offenses. One in three Black men can expect to go to prison. For white men? One in 17. And how much does all this cost, to maintain 25% of the world’s prison population, despite the U.S. accounting for a mere 5% of the world’s total population? In 2010 alone, the U.S. spent $80 billion on incarceration.
But the problem with numbers and facts is that they often lack context. Again, some of us, if not most, are so removed from this world that it seems completely foreign. Perhaps that’s why Making a Murderer was such a word-of-mouth sensation. In one 24-hour period alone, the Netflix series generated 8.46 million Twitter impressions with the hashtag #MakingaMurder. And while Netflix is known for keeping their viewership numbers cloaked in secrecy, the show has come to be known as their most significant yet, with an indisputable popularity easily seen on Facebook and Reddit, where heated debates surrounding the case have taken place over the past year. In addition, over 500,000 people signed a petition titled “Free Steven Avery.” Another petition called for then-President Obama to pardon him and Dassey, a request which was denied based on legal constraints. That’s all for two people, out of a sea of convicted individuals, thanks to a true-crime documentary on Netflix.
The real question is, will that be repeated for a documentary even more significant for our pop culture — and even more artistically inclined? I’m talking about 13th, the latest project by Ava DuVernay currently streaming on Netflix. Named after the 13th Amendment to the Constitution — which outlawed slavery except in the case of those convicted of a crime — this documentary focuses on race within the U.S. Criminal Justice System.
I had been shocked by Making a Murderer. Maybe it’s because I’m white. Maybe it’s because I couldn’t believe how easily an innocent individual could become trapped within our system. Maybe it’s because I had failed to ever really look at the world around me in that particular way. But nothing — and I mean nothing — prepared me for 13th, or the realization of how blind I’ve been to the plight of our Black population.
God knows the videos of Trayvon Martin, Alton Sterling, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Philando Castille, Laquan McDonald, Freddie Gray and so many more being abused, beaten and/or killed had affected me deeply. But DuVernay’s 13th brought it all together. It told me the story in a way that only an artist — and a master storyteller — could. And it made me feel guilty for being surprised by Steven Avery’s predicament. Because while Making a Murderer highlighted a single case with excellent precision, 13th showed me how systemic and robust injustice in this country has become — and has always been — with me, completely unaware of its wicked and racially motivated power.
Art holds the mirror up and forces you to look at yourself, to see the ugly, oftentimes disgusting, reflection of what we as a society have become and have allowed to take place.
But that is the role of art: to peel back layer after layer until it reaches the raw, sensitive nub of who you are as an emotional individual, blinded by your own worldview and version of reality. Art helps you see past your own personal bias more so than facts or figures, or even an essay. Art holds the mirror up and forces you to look at yourself, to see the ugly, oftentimes disgusting, reflection of what we as a society have become and have allowed to take place. And it takes technology — and social media — for that message to gain momentum and spread.
Because brutality isn’t new. Our criminal justice system failing the innocent, monetizing the process and targeting people of color isn’t new either. But what is new are the ways in which artists and storytellers can express the truth and share it with the world. Now the tools needed to reshape our culture and to right so many wrongs are in our hands, and it’s up to us to fix this.