Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story
- Emma Simmonds
- 30 April 2020
Persuasive but incomplete picture of the well-publicised murder case
The appetite for true crime stories can often feel unsavoury but this sensitive exploration of the well-publicised Cyntoia Brown case has a strong sense of the human being behind the headlines. Directed by Daniel H Birman, it's a persuasive if incomplete account of Cyntoia's fight for justice after she was incarcerated for murder as a teen.
Birman is the director of a 2011 PBS documentary Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story and the 2016 online video series Sentencing Children, in which Cyntoia also features; some of the footage shot for those is repurposed here, taking us from the aftermath of her arrest aged 16 for the murder and robbery of 43-year-old real estate agent Johnny Allen, through a variety of legal proceedings.
It begins, as so many documentaries now do, with a crude summarising montage and can feel somewhat functionally assembled, but there are fascinating discussions relating to Cyntoia's psychiatric evaluation and legal strategy, and Birman has the ability to extract extraordinary confessions from his subjects. A victim of sexual exploitation, the young Cyntoia is frank and smart and cuts a hugely heartrending figure as she finds herself swept up in a system which pays little heed to her hardship.
Brown (now known as Brown Long) has made it clear that she did not authorise or participate in the development of this new film. Her desire to distance herself from it hinders its ability to present her full arc; there are long periods of incarceration which go undocumented and her thoughts today would have been welcome. On the other hand, her lack of recent involvement could have given Birman the opportunity to present a more complete view of the case. Instead, his film remains an unabashed advocate for Cyntoia and is extremely selective in its presentation of evidence and testimony.
Given the limitations of feature filmmaking, there are other inevitable omissions but Murder to Mercy does well on detail and insight into the various legal processes. The film is very interesting, too, on genetic predispositions and the difficulty of breaking familial patterns, especially with regards to substance and more awful forms of abuse. Female family members speak with articulacy, openness and humility about their devastating personal struggles. Ultimately, Birman's intentions seem honourable as he shows that a one-size-fits-all, compassionless justice system simply doesn't allow for the complex contexts in which crimes occur.
Available to watch now on Netflix.