Sundance update: Jay Z takes on tragic Kalief Browder story: 'What was done to him was a huge injustice'
Music mogul is an executive producer of six-part SpikeTV documentary series
Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Eric Harris, Jordan Davis... So many African-American lives have been ground under in encounters with police, the court system or by assailants who go unpunished that we are in danger of forgetting their stories.
One such story is that of Kalief Browder, a New York teenager who was arrested in 2010 for allegedly stealing a backpack. He maintained his innocence and refused a plea bargain deal, but could not afford to post his bail. So he remained locked up, without trial, for three years in Rikers Island jail. The scandal became all the more shocking when the scale of the harsh treatment he endured behind bars was revealed, including two years spent in solitary confinement.
His family maintained the ordeal caused Browder's mental condition to deteriorate, and he took his own life in 2015, two years after a judge had thrown out his case and he had been released from Rikers.
I believe this young man, his story, will save a lot of lives.
What happened to Browder is documented in the upcoming six-part nonfiction series TIME: The Kalief Browder Story, which will begin airing March 1 on the cable channel SpikeTV. The first two episodes premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Wednesday, with many of the program's creators and executive producers in attendance, including Shawn "Jay Z" Carter, Harvey Weinstein, Jenner Furst, Julia Willoughby Nason and Nick Sandow.
Carter has called Browder a modern-day prophet for standing up to the legal system and for his capacity to publicly articulate what he experienced.
"We've seen prophets come in many shapes and forms and we've seen that sometimes tragedy happens by prophets," Jay Z told reporters at the premiere. "I believe this young man, his story, will save a lot of lives. What was done to him was a huge injustice and people see his story and realize like, 'Man, this is going on.' This is not like one case that happened. This is happening a lot to people especially places where I come from, in the boroughs... in the Bronx and Brooklyn and all these places. So it's very important."
Carter recalled making contact with Browder after his release from Rikers in 2013.
"I reached out to him and I met him. He came to my office," he said. "I just wanted to see him and... give him encouragement for those three years of his life that he had missed."
Browder's story increased calls for reform of the Rikers Island jail, which critics have accused of engaging in systematic abuse of prisoners. A reporter asked Jay Z whether he felt the jail complex should be shuttered.
"Any place that that can happen to any kid should be closed," he responded.
To Nick Sandow, a star of Orange Is the New Black and an executive producer of the Browder documentary, Rikers is a stain on the city and the nation.
"Rikers Island is New York's Gitmo, there's no doubt about that. I mean it's this hidden island in the center of the world," he said. "In the shadows of the Statue of Liberty there's an island where we are holding people waiting for trial for years on end because they can't afford bail. And maybe they're mentally ill, and getting no help. They're vulnerable."
Sandow said what Browder went through speaks to the experience of African-Americans in general in our society.
"I think it tell us that they are not safe in America and they have not been and never have been."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.