Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story
by Fran Winston
Directed by: Daniel H Birman
Available now on Netflix
If you haven’t heard of Cyntoia Brown, she was a 16-year-old runaway when she was charged as an adult with the first-degree murder of a 43-year-old man who had picked her up for sex despite her claim it was self-defence. Described as a prostitute throughout her trial she was sentenced to life with a minimum of 51 years in prison before she would be eligible for parole, which is the norm for a murder conviction in her home state of Tennessee.
I say ‘was’ because last year she finally walked free from jail after having her sentence commuted to 15 years when new legislation passed after her sentencing, which stated that as a minor she was a victim of sex trafficking rather than a prostitute, was taken into consideration alongside her age at the time of the crime. It’s a shocking story that drew the attention of numerous celebrities in recent years so the fact a documentary was commissioned about it is no surprise.
However, Brown had nothing to do with this. Prior to the release she clarified this on social media and said that most of the footage of her used comes from an earlier documentary Birman shot about her entitled Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story. This is unusual in the context of a film like this and it does suffer for it.
There are plenty of talking heads – her various legal teams, her adoptive mother, her biological mother and grandmother… but all we see of Cyntoia seems to be the gradual progression of her story and various court appearances and appeals rather than offering any specific insight into her plight. Obviously, since this footage was filmed before her release she wouldn’t have been in a position to offer an opinion on her situation.
This is a child who was pimped out and had been abused by numerous men before the night of the incident. In contemporary terms, she is considered to have been a victim, but in 2004 she was considered a hooker. The state had the option to try her as a juvenile but decided she should be tried as an adult and the fact that their standard sentencing is so harsh for her crime also begs questions as there is no leeway for special circumstances. At all points, the letter of the law was adhered to but a legal system isn’t necessarily a justice system and this is never questioned or analysed.
While it tells her story in a comprehensive fashion it never really pushes the boundaries of the subject. It never queries anything. It casually mentions how many other juvenile offenders are in situations not dissimilar to Cyntonia’s before swiftly moving along and never opens itself up to looking into any systematic injustices.
While this is as a shocking tale and you will definitely feel hugely for Cyntoia it never shines because of its reticence to explore the underlying issues in a very imperfect system.