HBO’s ‘Mind Over Murder’: TV Review
Documentary filmmaking the process of being a subject of a documentary have long amounted to a type of performative therapy, the camera acting as a sort of hybrid therapist/priest/judge.
A new twist on this theme has been the rise in documentary performative therapy. Robert Greene (Procession, Bisbee ’17 and Kate Plays Christine) and Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence) are among the leading figures in this subgenre, in which filmmakers observe or sometimes orchestrate artistic exercises as a way of helping people confront psychological wounds and maybe reach catharsis, rather than simply making a film about the psychological wounds themselves.
Mind Over Murder
The Bottom Line
This is a portrait of the power and beauty of art that is more interesting than a true-crime documentary.
Airdate: 10 p.m. Monday, June 20 (HBO)
Director: Nanfu Wang
Pushing the form to docuseries length is HBO’s Mind Over Murder from director Nanfu Wang (One Child Nation). A feature documentary absolutely could be made exclusively about the six people convicted and then exonerated for the murder of a Nebraska widow in 1985. Mind Over Murder comes close to justifying its extended, six-hour running time with a parallel focus on a community theater production about the horrible situation, a play aimed at making a town come to terms with a complicated and painful past. The first side of the documentary is sometimes repetitive and the second side underserved, but Mind Over Murder remains a provocative thing, defying any kind of simple hero/villain/victim classifications.
In 1985, 68-year-old Helen Wilson was raped and murdered in Beatrice, Nebraska. Although leads were pursued, no arrests were made for several years. Six people were arrested a few years later. They were not tied to the crime. They were barely connected by evidence. Five of them confessed and the sixth was convicted largely on the basis of these connections. More than a decade later, DNA evidence pointed to a completely unrelated killer, leading to the exoneration, which the media called “The Beatrice Six”, because the media is lazy, and doesn’t mind combining one injustice with another — the Central Park Five — no matter how dissimilar the circumstances.
What actually happened to Helen Wilson What was the outcome of the police investigation into the crime? What did Joseph White and Thomas Winslow, Ada JoAnn Taylor and Debra Shelden have to do? Why did they confess to the crime, if they didn’t have anything to do with it? Wilson’s family, represented here by several grandchildren, and local law enforcement as well as the entire town have been wrestling with these questions.
Enter the Community Players Theatre, director Cecilia Rubino and the play Gage County, NE, assembled from court and interrogation transcripts. Will the three-night production of Gage County, NE offer healing or will it tear the fragile town apart?
The basic documentary Wang is presenting about the legal catastrophe is solid. Wang is able to keep Wilson’s grandchildren in the case at her side, and she never loses sight of the fact that there are still grieving family members, no matter what wrongdoing was committed.
But, “sad relatives” can’t be compared when it comes to drama on-screen with conspiratorially railroaded suspects. Wang captures four of the six exonerated characters candidly on camera in what unfolds as an intriguing mystery, even though “history” will spoil it for anyone with Google. Wang shares the twists, turns and resolutions to “Huh?! Episode by episode, Wang shares the twists and turns and resolutions to “Huh?!?” cliffhangers. I will leave the most disturbing and unfathomable details for the series. It’s not surprising that the worst perpetrators aren’t featured in the series. The series also doesn’t make much of systemic injustices — repressed memories and treatment of the mentally ill, among others. They are soft-pedaled. There are still enough participants who insist that their police work was sound enough to roil even the calmest blood.
There’s a lot of contextualizing and recontextualizing of confessions and filmed or recorded interrogations that mean Mind Over Murder is telling the same often graphic stories over and over again without always getting results. This is where I wish Wang had been more aggressive in the structuring and development, casting and rehearsal processes, and, especially, the positioning and position of the actors within their community.
That, to me, is where Mind Over Murder is most fascinating — like when the actor playing detective-turned-florist Burt sits down with the man he’s playing and tries to get his assistance with mannerisms and motivation. Burt is often the key figure in the documentary, or at the very least one of the people Wang is trying build a character around through confrontations such as giving Wang a very meta solo screening. It’s not enough of that. Nor is there enough follow-up on the specific connections actors have within the community, and thus to the tragedy they’re portraying.
The idea that art can force reckonings that the steady, forward creep of history and the steady recession of memory perhaps deny is such a potent one that I wish the play wasn’t left to five or 10 minutes per episode throughout most of the series. When the staging finally occurs and we witness some of the aftermath, that’s when Mind Over Murder finally escapes its more rudimentary true crime trappings. That’s when Mind Over Murder finds a thrust that’s deeper and more complicated than literal imprisonment and exoneration, that gets to bigger issues of what it truly looks like to recover from all the miserable things in this case and how imperfect the idea of recovery can be.
From The Thin Blue Line to The Staircase to Serial to The Jinx, we’ve seen many examples of the role documentaries can play in achieving justice. Mind Over Murder comes too late to the party for that and maybe dwells too long on trying to contribute to that discussion as well, when its examination of the role documentaries can play in achieving solace is every bit as meaningful.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.