In the first fillm, Elle (Joey King) confronted her crush Noah (Jacob Elordi) at a kissing booth, which was awkward because Noah just happened to be the older brother of her best friend Lee (Joel Courtney), and according to the strict rules of their friendship pact, siblings were off limits. But the heart wants what it wants, sparks flew, and Elle and Noah spent a glorious, loved up summer together, before he headed off to college.
Now Elle’s starting her senior year of high school while juggling a long distance relationship which everyone else basically assumes means break up. Even Noah is feeling a bit neglected because of Elle’s misguided attempt to give him “space.” In fact, Noah wants just the opposite, encouraging Elle to apply to schools near him despite the fact that the Elle and Lee Friendship Pact also states that best friends should go to the same school, and that’s on a whole other coast.
Don’t worry, there are going to plenty of harmless, G-rated shenanigans: a series of games that until now I’d assumed only got played at church picnics, vying to be top score at an arcade even though it’s 2020, accidentally describing walking thirst trap Marco in excruciating detail over the school PA system – just your typical modern day high school antics.
I didn’t really care for the first movie and I didn’t expect much from this one either. Nor did I get it, to be honest. It is what it is: a sweet teeny bopper romance for the tween market. But it’s also a reminder of how much we ask of kids – kids who are still dressing up for Halloween! They have to predict what they’ll be happy doing for the rest of their lives, what the future job market will look like, whether their love can withstand the strain of distance and temptation, where to relocate geographically, and how much debt to cripple themselves with long-term, assuming they won’t be totally priced out of home ownership, and the institution of marriage still exists, and the gig economy hasn’t imploded any hope of insurance, and there’s still a planet healthy enough to withstand a generation after theirs. No pressure though, right? We definitely feel comfortable saddling 17 year-olds with these decisions? The exact same 17 year olds who thought they could solve the bulk of their problems with a Dance Dance Revolution tournament? Cool cool.
No hate for The Kissing Booth 2. It obviously has an audience, and its audience will find it without my intervention. Every generation needs its cheesy romances, and I’ve almost made my peace with that. Am I thrilled with this movie? Not even close. But it wasn’t made for me. Perhaps it was made for you. Or perhaps it’s not a perfect fit exactly but you’re looking for something undemanding and inoffensive. This’ll do. And maybe while we’re at it, this review will convince you I’ve matured, I’m mending my asshole ways, I’m more open and forgiving. It’s total horseshit of course. I suspect the truth is that COVID-19 has deadened me. It has decimated the movie industry and with so few options, it’s hard to completely discount any of them. We’re so desperate for content we’ll watch a sequel to a movie we couldn’t stand the first time – in fact my review said I’d rather eat my own toenails. Yikes. And now here I am two years later, eating COVID pie. It’s not good, but it’s literally all we have.
Why watch a documentary about a man you’ve never heard of? Do you really need to learn “more” when you know nothing?
To be fair: millions of people DO know his name. He was the world’s #1 astrologer for decades, but because he broadcasted mostly in Spanish, he never made it into my home or into my cultural lexicon (and to be super fair, I can’t name a single English or French speaking one either; astrology just isn’t my thing).
Whether you know his name or not, you should probably check out this documentary. He is indeed a curious character. Lin-Manuel Miranda describes him as dramatic and fabulous, and in Mercado’s case, those are vast understatements.
Androgynous? Asexual? Those are not words people used in Puerto Rico in 1969, when he got his start, nor are they words Walter Mercado uses even today. Labels? He’s not above them – he’s beyond them. Today Mercado resembles a cross between Julie Andrews, Joan Rivers, and Sean’s recently deceased Granny. His wardrobe isn’t so much a cross between Liberace and Elvis as a one-upmanship of both, with a touch of Siegfried & Roy, and a cape collection that would make Lando Calrissian cry. He admits to “a little arrangement” when it comes to plastic surgery, and some botox “like Nicole Kidman.”
Mercado has an origin story to rival a super hero’s, a primo sidekick in faithful assistant Willy (who warns us not to get too bitchy with him), a legendary catch phrase, and a super power. Unfortunately, he’s also got a nemesis because every story worth telling has a villain. And if Walter has a kryptonite, it would be trust.
Trusting his business manager Bill Bakula was his downfall. They battled in court rather than in Gotham, but there were hits, there were injuries, there was damage. Neither had a mother named Martha.
At times known as a miracle-worker, a magician, a psychic, and a sorcerer, most remember him simply as a source of inspiration. Mercado knew there was power in positivity and his horoscopes gave people a reason to believe in themselves. His fandom has keenly felt his absence and many in the community would champion a reboot of the Mercado franchise but not all super heroes are meant to rise again (especially not when their jewel-encrusted capes weigh more than 30lbs).
This is a fascinating documentary, well told, and well worth the time. Mercado is quite a character, and if he is a Hispanic hero, this movie is his legacy.
Ellie (Nia Long) and Marcus (Stephen Bishop) are recent empty-nesters who have sold up, left the city, and are starting a new chapter in a beautiful new home by the sea. Ellie is finishing up one last case before she’ll quit the firm and put up her own shingle nearer to home. But this one last case presents a wrinkle: her boss hires an IT “consultant” to help out (ie, obtain some emails in a less than legal way), and David (Omar Epps) isn’t exactly a stranger. Ellie and David went to college together, and it seems as though he may still be carrying a torch. A night out together turns a little steamier than Ellie meant so she puts an abrupt end to things, returning home to husband Marcus feeling more than a little guilty.
As if you couldn’t tell from the title, this is an extremely generic entry in the thriller-horror genre. It’s not called Happy Trust Exercise or Successful Long Term Relationship. It’s called Fatal Affair because David is obsessed with Ellie and he’s not going to let her marriage or indeed his own come between them. Obviously, the only reasonable way forward is a killing spree. Because the way to woman’s heart is stalking her family and murdering them in the face.
For any such plot to work, you’re going to have to accept that no one will answer their phones when they should, no one will call the cops when they should, no one will turn on a goddamned light when they should, and nobody remembers that David is a conveniently (for him) master hacker. Who is also oddly good at murder.
You know this movie. You’ve seen this movie. I mean, it’s brand new on Netflix, but you’ve seen a movie exactly like it at least half a dozen times. Its only saving grace is that Long, Epps and Bishop are very watchable, but when Long is forced by the script to break into David’s apartment even though she already suspects him of murdering his ex wife, there’s only so much she can do. These tropes are tired and the actors can try to inject them with fresh terror but this audience has seen it all and we’re not impressed. The only new ingredient director Peter Sullivan brings to the table is David’s murder hat, and even that’s nothing remarkable: it’s not a beekeeping veil or a Burker King crown or a half-ironic “60 and Sexy” trucker cap (which I only mention because my 6 year old nephew Ben recently inherited one from his great grandfather and wears it quite proudly). There’s nothing glaringly wrong with this movie, it’s just so overfamiliar that it saps all pretense of thrill right out of it, and a thriller without a thrill is just an er, a disappointing er.
Andy (Charlize Theron) is one weary warrior. She leads an elite team of mercenaries but when they’re called for a new job, she hesitates. She once believed they were doing ‘good’ but as she scans the news channels and her friends’ faces, she can no longer find any proof. The world isn’t getting any better. Is it even worth it? But client Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is insistent: a bunch of young girls are being trafficked and only the very best team – her team – can save them. So Andy swallows her cynicism and leads Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Nicky (Luca Marinelli), and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) once more into battle. Except Andy’s instincts were right: it’s a trap.
Copley’s been secretly tracking her team all along, on behalf of “the youngest pharma CEO ever” (Harry Melling). Eager to make a splash, not to mention a billion dollars, he wants to study Andy and her team to see what make them so special – and to replicate it, of course. Because humans are both greedy and vain and we never, ever learn a lesson.
This could have been a fairly by the numbers action movie, even if the action is pretty impressive. Of course, it kind of has to be these days; John Wick went and raised the bar on that, and now even a fairly trash movie like Extraction needs some intensely choreographed and inventive sequences. And of course, somewhere along the way, Charlize Theron has become a bonafide action star. But what makes The Old Guard stand out from the rest is its philosophy, director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s instinct to slow things down and instead of asking ‘what’s next?’ asks ‘why?’
It’s hard to know whether to categorize The Old Guard as a sci-fi movie or a super hero movie or a straight up action adventure. But like Wonder Woman, a film easily among the best in any of those genres, this movie doesn’t just explore the extent of their so-called super powers, it wonders when to use them, why to use them, and if they should be used at all. If Andy’s Guard isn’t quite human, the people they fight, and the people the save, are. The cost is high and the price is grief; Andy’s body may be strong but so is the emotional toll. And when new Guard member Nile (Kiki Layne) is discovered, the whole group has to decide whether it’s all been worth it.
The Old Guard isn’t a perfect movie but it dares to depict heroics occurring somewhere between survival and sorrow. It shows us not just its true cost, but both the weighing of it, and its weight.
Wesley (that’s a woman’s name now) is just beginning to realize that all of her failed relationships and all of her failed careers have one thing in common: her. A blind date rejects her after about 10 seconds, and an extended job offer is rescinded after she runs her mouth for a bit. Wesley (Nasim Pedrad) resolves that her personality is “an acquired taste” and vows to suppress it, and thanks to a head wound on her first date with Jared (Robbie Amell), she’s actually able to follow through, and Jared takes the bait!
After a blissful month together, Jared ghosts her out of the blue. Five days go by and not a single word. She and her friends hit the rose a little hard, and one thing leads to a rambling, raging email telling him what he’s missed out on, and shaming him for his ultra thin dick. So it’s a little awkward when he finally reaches her from Mexico, where he’s had an accident and been in a coma these past several days. I think by now we’ve established that Wesley isn’t the best decision maker, so she begs pals Brooke (Anna Camp) and Kaylie (Sarah Burns) to accompany her to Cabo so she can delete the offending email before he gets discharged from the hospital. It’s a fool proof plan!
Obviously the unfoolproofness of the plan is supposed to be the source of comedy, but you’d have to be pretty generous to give it even a chuckle (pedophilia is a recurring theme). But even if Desperados had what you might call traditional jokes (ie, funny ones), this movie still wouldn’t work because Wesley isn’t just a flawed character, she’s a terrible human being. I don’t want to saddle anyone with this woman, not even Jared, who, to be honest, kind of deserves her. He’s not exactly a great guy himself; he falls for “blank slate” Wesley and actually praises her for being the last “normal woman” in L.A. Exsqueeze me? Jared wants a woman with the personality of a potato, and we’re supposed to like him? And then there’s the problem of her two weird friends. Both are in their 30s and yet somehow have so little going on in their own lives that they can, at a moment’s notice, fly to Mexico on any given day of the week, for something as lame as one wonky email sent to a dude Wesley’s been seeing for less than a month, and who we already know has a disappointing dick. And yet they can also easily afford to do it. We don’t know how because each woman only has one trait that she’s known for: Brooke is going through a divorce, and Kaylie is desperate for a baby.
This movie was disappointing even for a Netflix movie I’d never heard of before starring decidedly second-tier (third tier?) actors. I wish I had the temerity of Wesley’s first blind date, who’d had the courage to walk away after just 10 seconds. No matter how desperate, Desperados isn’t fit for anyone.
USA Gymnastics knew that Dr. Larry Nassar was routinely and repeatedly sexually assaulting the many young girls in his care. They knew and they did nothing. They knew and the covered it up. They knew and they kept him in the position, kept sending child gymnasts to him, kept inviting him into their midst. They had a duty to protect their young charges. They had a duty, morally and legally, not only to remove him, but to report him to the police. Rather than doing so, they continued to feed victims into the hands of a known pedophile.
In Jon Stewart’s recent political satire Irresistible, he talks a bit about about the pundit economy, how the news has largely been replaced by talking head opinion. These aren’t journalists, not by a long shot, but they sit behind anchor desks as if they are, injecting issues with their own agendas. It’s a dangerous trend, especially when you consider it took reporters from the Indianapolis Star to expose these crimes and trigger a police investigation. Once the newspaper made the allegations public, women started coming forward. In droves. Hundreds. Newspapers are nearly extinct, but can we afford to lose the last few people dedicated digging for truth and informing the people?
Because USA Gymnastics was never going to do the right thing. In fact, they’d fostered a culture of abuse with coaches like Bela Karolyi who believed dominating and terrorizing young gymnasts was the key to success. USA Gymnastics wasn’t just looking the other way, it was enabling abusers and suppressing evidence because that’s how they kept the sponsorship dollars rolling in.
This is a difficult film to watch, obviously. But directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk deliver on a sense of hope, too. And hope? She’s female. Called Athlete A in the documents, in court, woman after woman stood up, identified themselves, and spoke to the man who’d abused them, and to the judge who would sentence him. And also to all of us. They showed us there is power and dignity in being able to name the crime, and the perpetrator. It takes real courage to do that, but it made me want that same thing for every woman. Many, many, many sexual assault victims don’t get justice. They don’t speak up because they don’t feel they can. Or they are not believed. It took years for these gymnasts to see their day in court, but isn’t justice the very least we can do for these victims?
I will give it this: it is the funniest comedy of 2020. Is it (so far) the only comedy of 2020? Basically yes. But as this movie teaches us: sometimes you win just by showing up.
Lars (Will Farrell) has been obsessed with Eurovision since he was a little boy.
[For us non-Europeans, a crash course in Eurovision Song Contest, which is a real thing: it’s an annual international song competition, held every year since 1956, with participants from many of the 50 eligible countries (confusingly, some eligible countries are not European, and one, Scotland, is not even a country). Like the Olympics, each country holds internal trials and sends their best delegation to the competition, where an original song is to be performed on live TV and radio. Then people vote on their favourite. Countries cannot vote for themselves; each country awards two sets of points, one set decided by a panel of music industry experts, and the second decided by viewers voting by phone and text. Occasionally the winner achieves success outside of the broadcast area; Abba won for Sweden and Celine Dion won for Switzerland *record scratch* wait, what? That’s right: for some reason you don’t have to be from the country you’re representing. Some people compete multiple times by singing for different countries. Dion, who is ours (Canadian), was a good horse to bet on, but it does smack of cheating. Although, to be fair, so does every other thing about the contest. Russia won’t vote for queer performers and China won’t even show them. Jordan won’t show Israeli entries because they don’t recognize it as a country, and neither does Lebanon. And it seems that neighbouring countries tend to vote for each other; geographical and even political alliances pop up, and reciprocal votes are exchanged. You could even allocate points to an unpopular performance in order to boost your own relative success. 2020 was to be the show’s 65th anniversary, with this film’s release set to coincide with it. Alas, COVID has other plans, and for the first time, the contest was cancelled)]
Back to Lars (Will Ferrell), a little Icelandic boy who fell in love with Eurovision the day he first heard Abba sing Waterloo, much to his father’s disapproval. Many, many years later, Lars is now a middle-aged man but his dream is the same. His father’s (Pierce Brosnan) stance hasn’t changed, if anything, he’s more critical of his son’s “wasted life.” But his Fire Saga bandmate Sigrit (Rachel McAdams) has more than enough enthusiasm and encouragement to go around, and in their own heads, they’re already stars (the local pub tells an entirely different story, interrupting their original music to request Ja Ja Ding Dong, a silly but exceedingly catchy piece of shit – think of it as Iceland’s Chicken Dance). They’ll never get sent to compete on Eurovision on their own merits, but luckily the elves are on their side and something happens to tie up literally every other singer-songwriter in the country.
Off to Scotland they go: cue some fish out of water humour, some anti-American jabs, an oversexed Russian (Dan Stevens), and some pretty bizarre on-stage theatrics (which apparently are also a real thing – it’s a visual medium, and performers do their utmost to stand out). Iceland is basically the laughing stock of Eurovision.
This is the movie Will Ferrell was born to write. Scratch that: it’s the movie his wife was born for him to write (She’s Swedish – her family introduced him to the contest and he’s followed it rather ardently since 1999). That’s a pretty serious investment. He planted those comedy crops last century – does he harvest the rewards in this movie? Well, not exactly. His family won’t starve to death, but it’s a meager little crop, and a little mealy to boot. Sean thought it was pretty fun, and I won’t deny the film does have its merits. Will Ferrell is a larger than life comedian. His bits are always big so they either fail big or they win big, and with a 2 hour run time, the premise doesn’t quite have enough steam to keep paying out. Still, considering it’s on Netflix, your risk is small. If you’d paid to see this in a theatre, you’d probably leave feeling disappointed, but it’s just good enough for a Netflix view.
This is the second collaboration between director David Dobkin and stars Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams. They had no scenes together in Wedding Crashers, in fact Ferrell had a pretty small part, but it was a wildly and unexpectedly successful movie. Perhaps Will Ferrell in small doses is the key here, and it’s one that’s definitely lacking in this prohibitively-long-titled movie. As troubling is his character is, we’re doomed to follow him around through all his lows and lowers. Rachel McAdams is basically inoffensive. She’s not exactly known for her comedic chops, so she provides an earnest counterpoint to Ferrell’s hammy, over-the-top antics. It’s not a match made in heaven. It’s not even a great match for Iceland, whose couplings tend to be a touch inbred. But like the proud and wonderful Icelandic people, this movie is unabashedly, embracingly weird. And like Iceland’s relationship with Europe, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is not the best that Netflix has to offer, but occasionally it surprises you.
Not only did I fail to feel the beat, I couldn’t even find a pulse.
But that’s me, discerning movie viewer, critic without a cause. I won’t deny that it may hold some cachet as a family-friendly offering for the tween set. For the rest of us, it’s exceedingly missable.
April (Sofia Carson) is a hometown success story, having left for stardom on the Broad Way. She didn’t find it, of course, and slinks back home, tail between her legs. Luckily the small town where she’s from is sufficiently square that their twitter feeds have sme sort of hillbilly 3 day delay (a mild scandal brews on social media). To them, she’s still Impressive April, and the (very) humble dance studio where she got her start fawns over her terse, uninterested, one-word replies to their burning questions. This they call a “master class.” But when April gets a whiff of redemption (ie, a national dance competition with a handy dandy “teacher feature” which could put her in front of a judge’s panel including a top Broadway producer), suddenly she’s interested. Sure her interest is self-serving and mostly takes the form of verbally abusing an eager if unskilled dance troupe. They’re a bunch of misfits, as dictated by the trope, with a lineup including a deaf girl, a chubby girl, a poor girl, and a boy.
As you might venture to guess, the road to nationals is predictably paved with teachable moments and personal growth for our girl April, who never quite got to likable with me, which is just fine since I also found her unwatchable. Absolutely nothing personal with any of the cast, who were dancing their little tushies off. This is merely a trite script and a small budget and a green, though not necessarily untalented, crew. Which adds up to a harmless but ultimately subpar, forgettable movie that I did not need to see.
The Vietnam War. Yeah, we all flinch at the words. As a Canadian, I actually didn’t learn about this in school as we were “non-belligerent” (what a term!) (also, we were busy learning about our contributions in WW2, a war America remembers fondly by screaming at random Europeans “we saved your asses!” but Canadians remember as the war we joined immediately because we “thought Nazis were bad” and America ignored for two whole years because “Nazis were maybe okay” and finally joined when “something bad happened to us, on our soil.” Ahem) and I was born long enough after it that there was already a hit Broadway musical about it. But we can’t help having absorbed quite a bit about it, through pop culture of course, and by sheer proximity to our war-mongering neighbours to the south. I knew that it was a tough war because many Americans came to oppose it, which was probably the right attitude, but it meant that a lot of returning vets didn’t get the respect they deserved or the help they needed – which is an American hallmark, actually, by no means exclusive to the Vietnam war. And I knew that bad shit had happened there: we called it the My Lai Massacre; the Vietnamese call it the Son My Massacre, but either way you slice, it meant that 500 unarmedcivilians – men, women, children, babies – were slaughtered by U.S. soldiers. Women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated, as were children as young as 12. When their cover-up was eventually busted, 26 soldiers were charged with criminal offenses but only Lieutenant William Calley Jr. was convicted. Found guilty of killing 22 villagers, he was given a life sentence but served only three and a half years under house arrest. And for me, the Vietnam war was oddly muddled up with hippies and their peaceful sit-in protests and with civil rights and their peaceful marches. And historically, that’s correct. Some were putting daisies into guns for peace and others were being sent to war, and those things were happening concurrently but not equally. Young black men were being sent to Vietnam in disproportionate numbers while young white men could easily avoid it simply by attending college: Bill Clinton deferred once for college, Joe Biden and Dick Cheney each deferred 5 times. And if staying in school indefinitely wasn’t your bag, your wealth and privilege could work for you in other ways; Donald Trump avoided the draft 4 times with educational deferments but the 5th time Uncle Sam came calling he out and out dodged it – his father called in a favour from a Queens podiatrist who wrote up a false diagnosis of “bone spurs” even though he’d been found physically fit to fight just two years prior and has since said it just “healed up on its own” with no treatment necessary!
Anyway, black civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., were opposed to the war for exactly this reason. Once again, black men were being asked (well, told) to serve their country, and there weren’t any colleges or doctors writing bogus deferrals for them. They were asked to protect the freedoms of people in other countries when they still didn’t have that at home for themselves. They were called up in greater numbers of course, and were a higher proportion of combat casualties in Vietnam, and African American soldiers encountered bigots in their ranks, discrimination in the field, disadvantage when it came to promotions and decorations, and fewer services if and when they returned home. That’s a whole lot to untangle, but have no fear: Spike Lee is reaching back into the baggage of his righteous anger, and he’s not afraid to tackle these iniquities.
In Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, Norman (Chadwick Boseman), a soldier in 1970s Vietnam, tells us “War is about money. Money is about war. Every time I walk out my front door, I see cops patrolling my neighborhood like it’s some kind of police state. I can feel just how much I ain’t worth.” Spike Lee always ends up sounding prescient in his films, but his trick is simply having the temerity to acknowledge that the patterns in our shameful history march on today.
Many years later, four Vietnam vets, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) return to Vietnam to repatriate the body of their fallen comrade and 5th Blood, Norman…and also the pile of gold they stashed along with him. Now surely worth millions of dollars, you might guess that this buried treasure is not going to bring out the best in even the most devoted of brothers in arms. Greed, guilt, nostalgia, regret – these we understand, but Paul’s motivation is particularly murky. Unabashedly sporting a MAGA hat, prone to racist outbursts, he’s convinced himself that he’s doing this for Norman’s honour. But propelled by fury, by a barely-restrained rage for the many ways he and his African American servicemen were vilified for their role in Vietnam, that pile of gold bricks starts to feel like reparations. And this recovery mission starts to feel more like one of revenge – against an enemy that Paul can no longer distinguish.
Delroy Lindo’s performance is the sun around which all the other planets orbit, and like all bright balls of fury, Paul is flirting with supernova. And for his part, Spike Lee has of course never been known for his reticence. As a director, he’s prone to flourishes, allowing Paul’s stream-of-consciousness mutterings to morph into a rousing monologue, staring down the barrel of the camera, staring us down, charging us with his passion and urgency. Lee splices the story of his 5 Bloods with real life footage – Muhammad Ali’s conscientious objections, the Kent State massacre, the Black Lives Matter movement (yes, his film is once AGAIN that prescient, he’s taking the pulse of America right from the jugular, right from its crushed windpipe, his alarm and his agitation a perfect reflection of today simply by being unafraid to hold an honest mirror up to the ugliness of yesterday). His script stresses the cyclical nature of the violence without letting anyone off the hook. Spike Lee’s strength as a filmmaker has always been his point of view, his authorial voice resonating backwards and forwards through time, the immediacy of his plea undiminished.
Da 5 Bloods is as potent as anything Spike Lee has ever done, and possibly the boldest feather in Netflix’s cap. The film is visually arresting, the aspect ratio in constant flux as we travel through time (and our four main actors embody their characters in both timelines, a choice I can only assume is deliberate since Netflix has proven willing to splash out for de-aging, perhaps a nod to these men wanting and needing to believe they are still heroic, still capable, still virile, or a symptom of having glorified the time in their heads, and wanting to recapture that now, before it’s too late). But most of all I admire Da 5 Bloods as an allegory for reparations. Not even an allegory, really, but a template what financial amends might look like and how we can begin to take the next steps forward.
Netflix is crowded with documentaries just like this one: someone, often a person of colour, has been completely failed by the so-called justice system. And for every documentary made, there are hundreds? thousands? of unnamed prisoners going through the same thing. It’s hard not to burn out on these stories, and we feel so helpless to do anything about it.
Cyntoia Brown was failed many times before the justice system ever had its chance. Her mother Gina was just 16 when Cyntoia was born, already addicted to alcohol and crack. She struggled to raise her for a couple of years, but Gina was herself the victim of childhood molestation and rape, as was her mother before her. When Cyntoia was 2, she was given up for adoption, but she struggled to fit in, and her undiagnosed fetal alcohol poisoning made it impossible for her to thrive in settings that were hostile to her. By the time Cyntoia was 16, she was being pimped frequently by her “boyfriend” and one night, during an encounter that had her feeling particularly vulnerable, she shot the man who had picked her up, fearing and believing that he was about to do the same to her.
The justice system spent very little time deciding her fate: first, to be treated as an adult in court, despite her young age, and second, to sentence her to life in prison for a crime she committed as a scared child in an impossible situation. In 2004, when she was arrested and charged, the court called her a prostitute. Today, it would call her a child sex slave, the victim of human trafficking. But that does her very little good when she’s already been behind bars for 14 years.
But you know what? Some of director Daniel H. Birman’s footage went viral, prompting social media users to retweet #FreeCyntoiaBrown until someone finally paid attention. Her cause went up for review, and Brown pled for a second chance though most of us can see that she never really got her first. Her sentence was commuted and after 15 years in prison, she finally walked free. Now she spends her time advocating for prisoners in similar circumstances, but I think her story is particularly powerful in that it proves that actually we can make a difference. Hearing these stories and sharing these stories is how we begin to mend a broken system.