Say Her Name: The Life & Death of Sandra Bland — directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner — first premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. The documentary illustrates Bland’s background, her activism, and the legal and cultural fallout surrounding her untimely death. None of this would be possible without her family. And for her surviving mother and sisters, saying Sandra’s name is about so much more than sentimentality. Sisters Sharon Cooper and Shante Needham sat down with Refinery29 to talk about why telling Bland’s — affectionately known as Sandy — story themselves was so necessary.
“It was very important that her story be told in the correct way, and that people got a chance to know Sandy as a person,” an emotional Needham explained. “It was equally important that we were able to control the narrative of her.” Think about the last report you saw of a Black person having a negative interaction with the police. What picture was used to visualize the Black person? Was it a mugshot or a graduation photo? If you saw both, who was responsible for releasing which photo? When the Black person was described, was their rap sheet or school disciplinarian record at the forefront of the narrative, or was it their professional and educational accomplishments? It’s likely that the Black person in question was vilified and criminalized.
Cooper chimed in to reiterate this point. “Throughout the history of what it means to be Black in this country, so many times others tell our story, whether it's people in our community or those outside our community.”
Cooper and Needham were approached by Davis and Heilbroner to make the documentary only two weeks after they learned about their sister’s death. But Needham and Cooper both expressed extreme gratitude that they were brought into what has felt like a “strategic partnership” with the filmmakers. Thanks to their efforts to tell the real story of Bland, they've helped make her a household name.
Bland was pulled over by Officer Brian Encinia in Prairie View, TX for failure to signal a lane change on July 10, 2015. According to dashcam footage of the traffic stop, Officer Encinia became agitated and violently pulled Bland out of her car. Despite quickly handcuffing her, he arrested her for assaulting a public servant. On July 13, 2015, Bland was found hanging in her cell in the Waller County Jail. Her death was ruled a suicide, and in the aftermath no one was held accountable for her arrest or death. Officer Encinia was charged with perjury, but a judge later overturned the charge. If you’ve heard her name, you’ve probably been prompted to — via hashtag, chant, or speech – say her name. Bland’s death sparked national outrage, with many people protesting her arrest, questioning her cause of death, and calling out the racial undertones of the whole ordeal. "Say Her Name" became the official rallying cry of those in support of Bland and other women that have been killed in state custody or at the hands of state-sanctioned violence.
Davis, who sat down alongside Needham and Cooper to talk about the documentary spoke frankly about the delicate balance between honoring Bland’s grieving family and exploring her story from all angles. This included giving voice to the law enforcement officials who think they did nothing wrong in the death of Bland. “Ultimately, in that situation just as a journalist, I feel like the best thing I can do is just believe that the truth should come out and not just go in there with an I got ya! agenda.” She stressed an “open heart” as part of her research process, but made it very clear that her first job was to honor the pain felt by the loved ones Bland left behind.
That pain has not gone away. Speaking out publicly about the death of their sister and playing a part in the global movement to honor her life has ensured that Bland is not erased from history. But it has not erased their heartbreak. Needham said, “Some days I still feel like it's July 13, 2015.” On the verge of tears she added, “I don't think there is any level of healing that could ever repair or replace or just make the hurt hurt less.”
What The Life & Death Of Sandra Bland makes very clear is that she should have never been arrested in the first place. She ended up in the place of her own untimely death due to the fragile ego of a police officer who likely saw so many Black faces before Sandra’s that were labeled as volatile, criminal, and dangerous. Saying the names of Black people — especially those at the intersections of gender, class, and sexuality-based oppression — means telling the story of their full humanity. It means talking about what a great aunt they were to their niece; how excited they were to finally find a job in their field after being an unemployed millennial; and how they only wanted to educate and unite people across racial lines. That’s the story of Sandra Bland that needs to be told alongside the narrative about her death. Thankfully, Cooper and Needham won’t let any of us ignore it.
Say Her Name: The Life & Death Of Sandra Bland premieres on HBO at 10 p.m. EST December 3. You can follow the conversation about the documentary using #SayHerNameSandraBland.