Over the past two and a half months, as much of our country has lived in quarantine, we’ve witnessed the violent loss of black lives with disturbing frequency. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd have died at the hands of racists and law enforcement. Complex Networks recognizes the power of its platforms and is committed to amplifying their stories and the voices of our communities to work for justice.
As the country mourns George Floyd and processes his tragic and unnecessary death, one of the most depressing aspects is recognizing that he's but one new name on an exhaustively long list of black men and women who have fallen victim to systemic racism and injustice. This Saturday is the anniversary of one of the most crushing entries on that list; June 6 is the day Kalief Browder passed after three years he spent in Riker's Island—where he awaited trial for allegedly stealing a backpack—took their ultimate toll.
To remember Kalief, especially during this time when protests continue to keep the memory of him and the countless others like him alive, Complex reached out to Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason. Together the duo made Time: The Kalief Browder Story, a six-part documentary backed in part by Jay-Z that aired three years ago on Spike. (It's now streaming on Netflix.) Below, Jenner and Julia reflect on Kalief and his late mother Venida, and unpack how Time as well as their subsequent project with Jay-Z, Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story, dovetail with what's happening in the country now.
The anniversary of Kalief's death is a heavy day on its own, but now it feels even more potent as it occurs in the midst of all the protests, sparked by George Floyd's murder. How have you two been processing what's been happening in the country for the last two weeks?
Jenner: I think it's incredible to see the level of activism and engagement around Mr. [George] Floyd, and around Mr. [Ahmaud] Aubrey.
Julia: And Ms. Taylor.
Jenner: So in general the activism and the engagement is incredibly inspiring and we have such a long way to go, but we're seeing a lot of movement. We're seeing charges get upgraded, we're seeing additional people be indicted, and that is not enough. And now we're seeing local governments and leaders realize that this activism isn't going away and that there has to be a broader, more comprehensive answer to the systemic institutional racism that's happening across every city and state department in the country before there's going to be any peace, and it's a beautiful thing. We're very inspired to see it.
Julia: For me, processing the last two weeks obviously brings up a huge wave of emotion from deeply working with Trayvon's family, Kalief's family, and studying and dedicating my life to making films on racial injustice. I would hope the momentum can continue and it's not just like a shot of violence and sensationalism, which some times is a low hanging fruit that clouds the clarity of justice that needs to be focused on here. I think that the violence is something that has always, in the past, been a huge distraction to the core issues of change. And I just appreciate the impetus for certain types of peaceful protests: the blackouts to not purchase things from the corporate system, because essentially mass incarceration is tied into the corporations and the whole systematic profile.
I hope that the momentum keeps going. And [that] especially white people start to really listen and understand the new vocabulary and empathy in a whole new way. I think the way it's collided with the pandemic is a very metaphoric and interesting self -reflective time for everybody. But really, it's more important that I listen.
It's been three years now since Time aired. In what ways do you both see the ripples from putting it out to the world, having had a positive effect and impact? And in what ways do you think the country and institutions like the prison and judicial system are still lacking?
Julia: I just think for the public to see and learn about the court system and the criminal justice system on the racial systemic injustice on mainstream cable TV, the same network that Cops is aired on, was the great combination of paradoxes that was really powerful for us as filmmakers. Now, it's been transferred to Netflix so it's an even wider scale. We tried to expose the whole system within our series and focus on one individual that stands out from that, Kalief is that individual in this case. So I think that people can get a history lesson on the unhistory, that we are not taught preliminarily.
I think for the court systems they're just overloaded, they're not being focused on as a problem in terms of turnover, and cases being analyzed and the focus on pressuring people and torturing people, basically, while they're in custody to prove guilt and have a record for the rest of their life is completely abominable. And I don't think hardly any Americans know about this, except for the communities that are suffering deeply from it. So it's combining the knowledge and saying, "This is not fake news, these are actual facts." Really, I think over the three years has just, it continues to blossom and you can refer back to Kalief's story always and what he stood for as an ultimate patriot.
Jenner: The series was seen by over 50 million Americans when we first came out on Spike. And through the incredible advocacy and promotion by Mr. Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter, we were able to reach an incredible audience, and the effect was staggering in the beginning. Time helped raise the age of criminality in New York state, New York was one of only two states in the nation with such a low age of criminality. We saw that on the eve of the premiere of our sixth episode, de Blasio went out publicly to announce the decision to close Rikers Island. And I think that the series has continued to raise national conversations about criminal justice reform and reform in solitary confinement. And one of the most inspiring things over the last three years was that this show is being taught in universities and colleges for criminal justice students.
What it does is, Kalief's story forced America to confront our original sin, and the disease of racism, and what we were so blessed, and fortunate, and humble to be able to do with Kalief's story is show the symptom of the disease. And when we got the incredible honor to work with Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, and Mr. Carter again, we were able to focus on the disease itself. And so we were able to create an evolution of the work where Time: The Kalief Browder Story and Rest In Power: The Trayvon Martin Story are incredibly symbiotic. And in a time like now, these two pieces are perfect things to watch if you want to take a crash course in the state of racial injustice in America.
And I think that what gets overlooked a lot in the conversation is that the aspect of how the criminal justice system kills people and that Kalief Browder was, in essence, murdered by the criminal justice system. In that his torture on Rikers Island, his prolonged incarceration for a crime that—and this is one of the great lines of the series that Jay-Z said, "Even if he did steal a backpack, did he deserve any of the things that happened to him?" And we're not saying he did [steal it]. He claimed his innocence till the day he died.
So let's put them in perspective. It was a backpack. It was a $20 bill. Philando Castile was a traffic stop. Dylann Roof killed countless people in a church and was bought Burger King. The Boston Bomber had a shootout with the police and was brought in alive to stand trial. This is ridiculous that we should even be equivocating, these things. And what I'm trying to say is not only does the criminal justice system kill people in slow motion, and incarcerate them, and torture them, and psychologically maim and destroy them, but it does it for their family. And in our series, we wanted to present that it wasn't just Kalief Browder that the criminal justice system killed, but it was his mother. Who went to see him so many countless times. Venida will always be in our hearts. Venida Browder is a civil rights hero for her dedication to her son. And we've seen a lot of response over the years for Kalief and for Venida. And for that, we're very grateful.
Both of these projecrts were really huge undertakings and represent situations that unfortunately are never far from being relevant, especially now. Jenner, you mentioned working with Jay on both. And what's interesting about Time is that it's one of the first instances where he put his activism to work in a film context. What was that collaboration like?
Jenner: We saw the reporting like everybody did in New York. It was chilling. It was heartbreaking. And we felt that there was a very important story here. And we began to work with Kalief's family and his attorney. And we understood from day one that this film was a lot bigger than a network. This film was a lot bigger than an independent production. This was not something that we could do in a small way. And we had to approach the way we thought about this project in the biggest possible way. 'Who is going to help us get this story to the most amount of people and advocate for the core issues in it in the largest way?' And we knew that Jay had invited Kalief to his office and that this was one of the greatest moments of Kalief's life, to meet Jay-Z, and sit and talk with him. It was like the most fairytale experience for him. And it meant a lot to Jay too. And when Kalief died, Chaka Pilgrim, who's one of our key partners on this project and Rest In Power, was that the funeral. Chaka really cared about Kalief. And Chaka was the one who really helped make that introduction happen, and stayed in touch with the family and stayed in touch with Kalief's attorney.
As we were putting this project into full-steam, we sat with Chaka and we said, "We think that this project is essentially as urgent, and impactful, and global and relevant as possible. And we think that Jay's advocacy on this project would be a game-changer." And it was like an overnight thing: "Yeah, we're in." From that moment on, the thing just went into the stratosphere, as it should've. That's what Kalief Browder and Venida Browder deserved. They deserve the advocacy of one of the largest, most outspoken voices. I believe what Jay has done in Minneapolis and his conversations with the governor had a huge effect. I think that Jay has done incredible things with his platform.
We were humbled and honored to put this in his hands and let him advocate. And that was one of those moments as a filmmaker when you realize it's a lot bigger than the filmmaking. You're actually enacting history together. When the stars align like that, you realize that you're just a channel for the project to occur. And the project and Kalief's life, Venida's life, is what needed to be seen by 50 million people. Now it's available to 156 million people on Netflix. To carry on the work with Jay-Z on Rest In Power, and sit with Trayvon Martin's family, and discuss how we saw the story, and how we wanted to expose America's original sin in Technicolor, and really show what happened. And go from Trayvon to Trump, and show what had happened to our country. The fact that we were able to collaborate again, was one of the great God shots of our careers. Because there's few people in this industry who have the opportunity or the grace to be able to make films at this level.
You mentioned Jay's recent actions with Minneapolis. There's been talk of his tendency to work on these things under the radar in a way that confounds a society that's often more used to front-facing public actions. Debates about celebrity activism have been very prevalent the past few weeks.
Julia: I think Jay is a very deep thinker, to say the least, and I think he understands that he doesn't need to be him in the public to get things done, and under the radar is his magic. When we were interviewing him and working with him—he has an under the radar quality where he's very present when he's in the room. There's no cell phone with him. There's no people saying, "Oh, we have meetings." He is so present, and he speaks so direct and so deep I think that under the radar thing is the key to change, actually, because a lot of people think that, as celebrities, "my face has to be plastered all over."
Even people who are not celebrities, because of Instagram, they want to be their own celebrities, and it's "me, me, me." Jay understands it's not him. It's his intellect and his experience and his under the radar power, that he knows how to go underneath things, then resurrect out of. Jay resurrects.
Jenner: He's an example of humility in power. Jay is interested in making change for the issues that he cares about and when he approaches how to do that, or if he's going to get involved, he makes a calculated decision, and he approaches it in a thought-out way. And he knew that to have that conversation with the governor, and say, "Okay, you're a leader. Well, I'm a leader. I'm a leader too. But let me tell you something. On this phone call, I'm not a leader, I'm a dad, and something is really fucked up here, and let's have a conversation about it. You guys can do a lot more." It's been an honor to be a cog in the wheel of a bigger thing, in many ways he became that wheel rolling towards change. And if Jay wasn't behind our project, or I think if Jay didn't write a letter to the governor, we don't know what would have happened. We don't know what would happen. We know that he's just one man. He understands that he's just one man. I think ultimately it's an incredible thing to witness, and I think we're really blessed that we got to work with him.
Julia: He knows the power of being a father is one of the most powerful things a person can experience in life, and getting on that level and taking your vulnerability, stripping away all your clout is...Humility and empathy are the most empowering things that move the needle in life, and always will be.
Jenner: And it's not about us. It's not about us as white Americans who are taking on the mantle of deconstructing racism. It's about these families that continue to suffer. It's about millions and millions of Americans being persecuted. We are honored to walk beside and frankly behind so that the message can stay pure. As white Americans, we have to be a beacon of transformation to other white Americans. We have to show other white Americans that they need to be thinking about this. That they cannot avoid it anymore. And that their silence is their privilege. And part of what white Americans need to do is surrender privilege, especially white men, admit that we're wrong, admit that we don't have it figured out, show some humility and surrender the silence. If you can't surrender your McMansion, or you can't surrender your career, all the things that you cherish in life. The one thing you can surrender is your silence. And you need to speak the fuck up, period.
Julia: White Americans—their silence is compliance and a lot of them are so scared. They're so scared they're going to say the wrong thing. They're so scared that they'll be educated too much, and they can't handle that. I try to even tell my friends, who have a hard time watching this work. I'm trying to communicate that in a human way. It's about empathy. There's a lot of hardcore depth of shame and guilt that needs to be really looked at to get into the depth of the empathy. And to understand as white Americans that we are ignorant by choice. And that ignorance has given us so much of our privilege. And it's so historical. And I have benefited from it. And as a white American, I'm trying to learn. I'm still learning.
I think people learn a lot now through TV, films, more than they read— I know you're writing an article [laughs]. But big picture, I think people do, especially young people. It's a delicate balance. I have a lot to learn myself. Even though I've dedicated my life to this work, it doesn't stop. I just want to be able to continue because it goes deeper. It's about humanity and it really goes deep into what patriarchy is and how capitalism feeds off that.
I'm in Arizona right now. I'm from New York, and even though I'm white, it's a whole new world. I said [to a white guy], "Oh, you're tail light's out. You're lucky you're not black." And he goes, "What do you mean by that? Why would you say something like that to me?" I was like, "Because you could get killed from just having that out." And he's like, "That's not a fact."So where do we go from there in that conversation? That's kind of where things are at, sometimes, as we all know. I don't know.
Jenner: Ultimately, what we believe is the most transcendent message for America right now is that racism is capitalism. If the lower class people in America—especially white Americans with very little resources, with health problems, with no economic security—if they could realize that their fellow brothers and sisters of color are in the same exact struggle as them economically and if they could unite and form some kind of a collective agenda together, that would be the greatest transformation of the American system, because that is the true issue.
The 1% of 1% wants to keep us fighting, especially about racial issues, because they are so emotional. But as we know when we study the facts, racism is all about capitalism. There's no moral truth. There's no religious basis for it. There's no even intellectual basis for it. It is all capitalist. It's all a design to separate and segregate people for the maximum amount of profit. When folks can see that and trace the money and look what Donald Trump is doing and how he has a cohort of individuals that's less are going into every government department and decapitating leadership so that all of our safety nets are gone. This is entirely a financial game play. We want to make all the connections for people.
Julia: With capitalism and the fact that racism actually makes money for TV stations—of course, if there's going to be a racial injustice story, then that's salacious. It inherently makes money. Capitalism is a money maker to separate and have systems of control of certain classes. What I want to say about that, that's half part of addiction. Addiction to power is a disease. Racism is a disease. It's a complete and total dissociation with the human spirit. I'm trying to embody that in my life and change things, not shop certain places. One person can change a lot. I believe that.
Jenner: We also have the power to use capitalism to create change. Because if we can create areas where profits are affected, change will follow suit. That's why I think the blackouts are so innovative because it's a broader scale of disruption. It's thinking in terms of a more systemic disruption. We're excited by the evolution of activism in this country. Ultimately, we are going to experience a mass level of powerlessness with the environment, with Mother Nature, with things that are so far out of our control, with things that are going to bring us to our knees collectively.
It's going to be the black and brown people of the world that actually are affected the most by this. Look at the equatorial regions of the planet. Look at what happened with COVID-19. Look at how it dramatically affected the black community. It's all connected. We have to all come together and find acceptance and humility, especially the most privileged and entitled white men, to start becoming part of the solution and not part of the problem.
Well as a black American myself, I definitely want to thank you two for setting a strong example.
Julia: I would like to comment, even though we're focusing a lot on black men with police brutality and systemic racism, there are so many black women that take on the responsibility of fostering grief for generations and also are being killed. I'm very passionate about seeing both sides, the patriarchy within that narrative. Even though I know it's a majority of black men, but the women, like Breonna Taylor, what happened to her. I would like to say her name.
Jenner: Building on that, we've taken the time to really invest in what it meant for the black women of these families to have to walk with the grief of their children, and to have their families be dramatically destroyed. Venida Browder, that is an extremely strong black woman who had her life destroyed by the criminal justice system. What Sybrina Fulton was able to do with the grief for her son, transforming that into global action and in many ways the foundation for the BLM movement. I mean, it's staggering. It's incredible. It's a testament to the human spirit, and our relationships with those two mothers, in particular, have greatly formed our lives. We viewed meeting them as the grace of God. Venida's passing was, very, very hard. We were in the room with her. It's very, very tragic.
To bring the conversation full circle though, what are you guys' thoughts on the city's plan to effectively close Rikers by 2026?
Jenner: Tomorrow can be tomorrow for the rest of time, so plans to close the island and plans to reform the system can keep being tomorrow, and eventually we will have to see whether tomorrow is going to ever become today. And that's what we have to keep our leaders accountable for. And there has been some scaling back. There have been some tougher actions, but I guarantee you, if you go to that island right now, there are other Kalief Browders. So we have to ask ourselves, when are we going to pressure everybody to make tomorrow today?
Are you guys working on any new projects that you wanted to talk about now?
Jenner: We're actually really excited to take on some lighter fare, but that has really important connotations for society. We're working with LeBron James on a new docu-series about the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal. And then we also have a project we're really excited about, that we're in development with Leonardo DiCaprio's company on, about the climate crisis emergency. And we can't really kind of get into too many details, but we see a connection between everything that's happening, including the activism and the activism for black lives, to all be connected to a broader turning point in society. And our next project is hopefully going to be a very ambitious look at what's needed in order to survive as a species.