Julia Nason On Producing Spike’s New Doc Series TIME: The Kalief Browder Story

Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty.
The story of Kalief Browder made national news when Jennifer Gonnerman wrote a New Yorker profile about him and his three-year ordeal inside Rikers Island prison. He was 16 at the time of his arrest (for allegedly stealing a backpack), and he spent two years of his incarceration in solitary confinement. There is video surveillance of Browder being abused by guards and other inmates while his case was continuously postponed by the courts. He tried to kill himself multiple times. Ultimately, the case against him was dismissed, and he was finally allowed to go home. Browder was interviewed by the likes of Rosie O’Donnell, and he even met Jay Z. But what's clear from Gonnerman’s interview is that the boy who went into Rikers Island on May 15, 2010 is not the same person who came out. Browder suffered from depression and severe paranoia as a result of his inhumane treatment on Rikers Island and again tried to kill himself. On June 6, 2015, Browder ended his own life. His experience and untimely death prompted President Obama to come down on the overuse of solitary confinement. It’s not easy to tell a story like this one, in an essay, or on television. But Julia Willoughby Nason, and a team of producers that include her husband and Jay Z, were up for the challenge. TIME: The Kalief Browder Story is set to premiere on Spike later this year in the form of a six-part docuseries. Nason and I talked on the phone about what it took to bring this docuseries to life, and what Browder’s story says about our humanity. How did this series come about?
"I read the New Yorker article about Kalief and was blown away by his story. I felt so impacted that me, my husband Jenner (who’s also my partner), and Nick Sandow, my other partner, decided that we should make a documentary about Kalief. So we reached out to his family and we explained to them: We’re independent filmmakers. This is such an impactful human issue. We would really like to see if [you] would like to participate in making this into a film. They were open to it. We started to really delve into their life and the reverb of Kalief’s story on them as a family. That’s kind of how it started. It was a year and a half ago. We went up to Kalief’s mother’s house in the Bronx, and it just went from there." So his family was open to the idea of telling the story in the different way?
"They were open to it. They knew that Kalief was such a strong person and really wanted to get his story out there. They felt like his story really needed to be told even further than the New Yorker. So they were enthusiastic. Obviously it’s a sensitive thing, and we had to be sensitive to them." How did it end up getting picked up by Spike?
"My company Cinemart, Jenner, Nick, and I were developing a feature documentary. We were shooting for a couple of months with the family and we made short sizzle reel. We knew that Jay Z had met Kalief from the New Yorker article. So through channels we reached out to Jay Z independently. And we said, ‘Hey, would you like to be involved with creating a documentary? Here’s the sizzle reel.’ He watched it and he was like ‘100%. I’m down.’ Then we got a call from the Weinstein company saying, ‘Can you come in for a meeting? We want to make this a six-part series, not a documentary.’ And then Weinstein brought it to Spike." I screened the first episode, and immediately it's clear that this story is about so many different issues: the criminal justice system, obviously, child and family services, families themselves, and the education system. What was the process like for stringing all of those elements together? Was it difficult?
"This story is really about all the different arms of the system. And when [we started] to look at one aspect of it, the criminal justice system, we really quickly understood how [it] is so intertwined with the educational system, with foster care, with all the systems that are set up for people in this country. To weave them all together was an organic process, but at the same time it’s a delicate balance, because we don’t want to overwhelm people. But we really want to show how they work together and how they function as this massive machine that a lot of people don’t really have a voice in." You’ve worked on other projects that tackle heavy issues. Did this docuseries feel different in any way?
"I think the scale of this project is the biggest thing that we’ve worked on. Our last documentary was about racial extremism in a small town in North Dakota. That has similar human issues. But in this one, we really are showing it on a global scale. We’re showing it on a network that’s not HBO, not CBS. As filmmakers, we are looking for these intimate stories that expose massive issues. So in a sense, it’s similar to what we’ve worked on where we go really deep and intimate with subjects. But on the flip side, this is a huge platform that hopefully hundreds of thousands of people are going to see." Who’s fault is it that this happened to Kalief Browder?
"That’s a fabulous question. The question of: 'Whose fault is this and who should be accountable for Kalief’s story and the consequences of what happened to him?' is the main theme of this series. I don’t know if I can answer that. It’s not a simple answer. I think in the end this is a human issue story. After interviewing hundreds of people and working on this for almost two years, I feel like we’re all responsible for Kalief's story. I think that we have a responsibility to watch his story. No matter who you are, if you’re human this will touch you. If we don’t know Kalief’s story, we don’t know ourselves." Say more about that. What do you think is missing or definitely needs to change about us collectively?
"I think we are very polarized in our society right now, especially with social media. It seems to bring us together, but it brings us together in a very shallow, instant gratification way. We don’t really see the deep and searing side of life. As a woman making this series, I really want to delve into the nuance of Kalief’s story and every aspect of what it’s like to be a human being. Humans are an interesting species, a social species. But we tend to segregate into comfortable bubbles... But we need to start integrating more for the livelihood of humanity and a civilized society."

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