Released: 30th March
Seen: 3rd May
In 2004 Cyntoia Brown shot and killed Johnny Allen, this is an indisputable fact. What was always in dispute was motive, the prosecution said that she was a prostitute who robbed and murdered an innocent john while he was asleep and Cyntoia claimed she feared for her life after being sexually assaulted. At trial Cyntoia was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 51 years which would’ve made her 67 at the time of her potential release. However, thanks to the governor, she received clemency in 2019 and was released from prison. Now, those of you who are good at math will have caught onto this but… did I mention she was 16 at the time?
The story of Cyntoia Brown is a complicated one that involves sex trafficking, racial bias in the court system, genetic predisposition to violence, forgiveness and the idea that in 2004 a prosecutor actually said “My winning strategy is to say this 16-year-old is a prostitute” and that somehow actually working. We could spend an eternity debating the merits of this case if I was interested in debate, but I’m not. I’m here to talk about the documentary Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story and point out how it doesn’t help tell the story of Cyntoia Brown. Hell, I did a better job in the opening paragraph of this review and I’ve known about Cyntoia existing for exactly 2 hours at the time of writing about this.
Murder to Mercy is a film cobbled together from footage leftover from an episode of Independent Lens called Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story plus some newer footage that shows her release since that film was made and you can tell. You can tell the change in documentary form, we go from almost an impartial fly on the wall style documentary where we don’t really comment on anything but just watch the process happening to a talking-heads documentary with interviews of key players reminiscing, a transition that makes me wonder if the editor decided the film needed to stop making sense. It’s not like we go back and forth between them, there’s a point around the middle where the documentary style changes for no reason. There’s also a tone of drone shots worked in here as location establishing shots and they have no purpose other than “Well, it looked cool when Making a Murderer did this”, except Making a Murderer had a cohesive tone.
The film doesn’t seem to want to go beyond the constraints of the courtroom, barely even talking about the circumstances around Cyntoia’s case. There’s barely any discussion about the fact that she was a minor at the time, they play it off as “Well back then we’d of thought of her as a prostitute but now we see her as a sex trafficking victim” and never bothering to comment on how messed up it was that “16-year-old prostitute” didn’t make anyone’s alarm bells go off in 2004. No discussion of the racial politics involved, something that actually appears to have upset Cyntoia herself if you want to read her comments at the end of a Time magazine article about this movie.
She’d be completely right to have a problem with this movie, they don’t even really give her side of events. It’s the equivalent of a court stenographer reciting what the lawyers said without any actual insight into the circumstances. I got the idea of how the case went, I read Wikipedia, give me something about Cyntoia as a person and her recollections about the event. Go beyond the details that were known to the public at the time, actually have a reason to exist as a documentary about a crime.
You know who did this right? The docuseries Lorena, you can watch it on Prime. That series not only gave us the play by play of the case and the crime, but talked to Lorena and John Bobbit and got their perspectives, talked about the culture at the time, about the public reaction and about the minutia that makes the story fascinating… you know, like a documentary that actually wants to present a subject in its entirety instead of just rattling off the basic rundown of events on a checklist.
Then there are just the weirder decisions made around this film, like how every time jump is shown by what can best be described as a beginner tutorial after effects template that shows location and time. It’s a jarring thing that looks out of place and feels like it’s from another version of this movie. The monotonous pacing that just gives us nothing to grab onto, almost making the case sound boring… again, the case about the 16-year-old sex worker who shot a possible john or rapist. How do you make that feel boring? How is that just tiring to get through?
I wanted to get invested into Cyntoia’s story, I really did, but Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story is just a badly assembled version of it. It goes no deeper than the Wikipedia article about her and feels like someone took an old documentary and then crazy glued a 20-minute addendum to the end and passed it off as a brand new film. Sure there’s some value to knowing the story, but it could’ve been done so much better.