Five years ago today was the release of Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, a powerful documentary about the disturbing and untimely death of a young Black woman, created by the incomparable Kate Davis.
Kate Davis is an American documentarian who aims, above all else, to tell stories that might otherwise go untold, about people who may otherwise have been made invisible. Specifically, her films often center around Black and queer stories, especially in terms of the great injustices this country has forced upon them. She has been producing these immeasurably important films for over three decades.
One of Kate’s first and one of her most well-known films is Southern Comfort (2001). This documentary chronicles the last year in the life of transgender man Robert Eads, who has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Living in the south, Robert struggles to find treatment for his cancer, because many doctors refuse to treat a trans person. He spends this last year falling in love with a woman, attempting to reconcile his relationship with his family while also deepening his relationship with his chosen family, and ultimately reckoning with his own self acceptance and self love in his final days. Taking us from spring to the next winter, with Southern Comfort Kate crafts a heartwarming, and heartbreaking, portrait of a beautiful man and the profound journey he undergoes to the end of his life.
In 2010, Kate continued to honor queer stories when she created Stonewall Uprising…
In 2010, Kate continued to honor queer stories when she created Stonewall Uprising, which captures the 1969 Stonewall Riots, a series of protests which are widely considered to be the inciting event of the modern day pride movement. Combining archival footage of the protests, as well as modern-day interviews of people involved, the film acts as a complete chronicle of this event, its context, and the impacts it had both on a personal level and a wide scale.
Later on, Kate began to use her platform to respond to police brutality against Black Americans. In 2017, she created a short documentary entitled Traffic Stop, which tells the story of Breaion King, a 26-year-old Black woman from Austin, Texas, who was pulled over by a white police officer for a normal traffic violation and ended up undergoing a violent arrest. In Traffic Stop, Kate brilliantly juxtaposes dashcam footage of the arrest and the subsequent car ride to jail with footage from Breaion’s everyday life, highlighting the completely inhumane treatment of a human being. This film, which packed incredible amounts of power into just a few minutes, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject at the 90th Academy Awards.
Kate’s most recent film is Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland. Keeping with a similar idea as Traffic Stop, Say Her Name is a full-length documentary which tells the deeply upsetting story of Sandra Bland. Sandra was a young, Black, female activist who was arrested after being stopped for a traffic violation, and found dead in her cell a few days later.
Documenting the arrest using footage captured on a bystander’s phone, chronicling the investigation of Sandra’s death (which was deemed a suicide but believed to be otherwise), and utilizing found footage of Sandra during her daily life and in her activism, Say Her Name puts a face to the Black Lives Matter movement in a moving and mobilizing way.
One of the most powerful parts of Say Her Name is that it features videos from Sandra’s social media platform, “Sandy Speaks.”
One of the most powerful parts of Say Her Name is that it features videos from Sandra’s social media platform, “Sandy Speaks.” In my review of the film, I note that the inclusion of these clips means that Say Her Name is “not only a tribute to this woman’s life, but also an attempt to keep her message alive when she can no longer deliver it and to continue the fight after her death.” Furthermore, “So often documentaries about individuals who have died unfairly speak for the individuals, defining their legacy according to others’ judgements, but in a way the “Sandy Speaks” clips allowed Bland to speak for and define herself. Not only that, Bland’s bright and infectious energy in her videos adds a much-needed lightness to the film, shifting the focus from the tragedy of Bland’s death to the beauty of her life.”
The title to Kate’s most recent documentary, “Say Her Name,” is incredibly apt for the nature of Kate’s films. That’s exactly what Kate does best with her films: say people’s names, names which otherwise may have been forgotten, or worse, erased. The phrase is also apt for the effect that Kate’s films have on others. Because her documentaries are so visceral and moving, people are talking about them for years to come and, most importantly, saying their names.
© Julia Lasker (11/9/2023) FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Watch Stonewall Uprising here.
Watch Traffic Stop here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured photo: Members from the activist group People’s Power Assemblies NYC organized a rally and march in Brooklyn to remember and uplift the life of Sandra Bland and other Black women who died in the hands of police, and other agents of the state. July 13 marks the four year anniversary of Sandra Bland’s death. She was found hanging in a jail cell three days after being violently arrested for an alleged traffic violation. Photo Credit: Erik McGregor / Pacific Press / Alamy Live News / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: W39PNG
Bottom photo: “Co-Directors and Co-Producers David Heilbroner and Kate Davis accept the Peabody for The Newburgh Sting” by The Peabody Awards is licensed under CC BY 2.0 DEED.