Response to Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story

Many of you know that I’m currently in the Applied Women’s Studies program. My current research interests focus on issues surrounding race, incarceration and gender. So, when Alex assigned the class to make or write about an ethnography or documentary, I thought it was fitting that I would write about a documentary that really made me think critically about the status of black girls that have encountered the criminal justice system. As of 2010 it was noted that girls were the fastest growing group of offenders in the juvenile justice system. Because of the disproportionate amount of black girls in the juvenile justice system it is important to examine why this is becoming the norm in society. To examine the issues of race, incarceration and gender I wrote an analytical critique of the documentary Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story.

Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story explores the life and trial of Cyntoia Brown after she is arrested for the murder of a 43-year old white male whom she met at a fast food restaurant in Tennessee. He solicited Cyntoia for sex and suggested that they go back to his house where he was later shot to death. In the documentary we meet Cyntoia’s adoptive mother, Ellenette Brown, who sheds light on Cyntoia’s childhood. Georgina Mitchell, Cyntoia’s biological mother, is also introduced and has the opportunity to meet Cyntoia after leaving her over a decade ago. During the interviews with Cyntoia’s biological mother and grandmother, both women confessed to being diagnosed with multiple mental illnesses. In addition, Georgina stated that she had been known to be violent with others and had tried to kill herself in the past. Because of Georgina’s diagnosis, throughout the documentary questions were raised about whether or not Cyntoia was genetically predisposed to committing crime. No one will ever know if this was a sexual transaction between a young girl desperate for money and in fear of her life and an older man gone awry, or, as many spectators have suggested, a senseless killing of an upstanding citizen. Whatever the cause may have been, Cyntoia was charged with murder, tried and convicted of first degree murder and subsequently sentenced to life in prison at the age of 16.
Although, Birman the director of Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story gave voice and visibility to black girls that have encountered the juvenile justice system, the documentary was problematic for several different reasons. The first being that it was filmed through the lens of a white male, resulting in the issue of race in the criminal justice system being overlooked. Consequently, Cyntoia’s story produced a lack of open discourse about the role that race plays in the criminal justice system. Additionally, he never fully addressed social factors that affected Cyntoia and had ultimately led her to the point of incarceration.

Birman admits:
Initially, I was not terribly sympathetic to the idea of Cyntoia
Brown and her story because it was just so similar to the daily
news grind-another youth becoming violent through drugs and
prostitution (annenberg.usc.edu n.p.).

His language and choice of words in this quote clearly sets up a power dynamic between himself and Cyntoia. The fact that he was initially unmoved by her story should have caused him to really think about his point of view towards youth in the criminal justice system. His statements in my opinion clearly demonstrate that he doesn’t (and can’t) relate to Cyntoia because he has already placed himself in a hierarchal position of power. Therefore it is hard for me to believe that Birman could accurately answer his own question “why” youth are committing violent crime in this film.

In order to critically answer this question of “why” there needed to be a discussion about social influences and race. But, instead Birman chose to highlight genetics as the cause of youth that commit acts of crime. He did this by focusing on Cyntoia’s biological family and their mental illnesses as large factors contributing to “why” Cyntoia committed murder. The idea that Cyntoia reached the point of incarceration due to genetics only reinforces the belief that criminality is hereditary. Additionally, because Cyntoia is black only adds to the stereotype that black people are genetically inclined to commit crime.

Although, I was disappointed with the lack of discussion about race, gender and social influences I have to admit that the film was shot well. Birman’s use of close-ups and camera angles in my opinion were good. The greatest effect used in this film was the audio at the end of the documentary. At the end of the film when Cyntoia is sentenced and is calling her adoptive mother to give her the news you hear the song, “Ready For Love” by India Arie playing over her phone conversation. The last conversation between Cyntoia and her adoptive mother and the song that plays under the conversation are connected because both speak to the emotion and sadness of the court’s decision. In the song Ready for Love, India Arie sings: “I am ready for love/Why are you hiding from me (1-2). This part of the song is important to this scene because it alludes to the fact that Cyntoia has been in search for love and acceptance her entire life. As of result of Cyntoia’s hunger for love and acceptance from family and others directly resulted in her looking for love in all the wrong places; which ultimately put her in multiple bad situations and led her to the point of incarceration. In my opinion this song addressed what needed to be discussed throughout the film;the social aspect. The song addressed the social aspect of the film that was missing and mirrored Cyntoia’s life.
This film is powerful! I think everyone should check it out. It really demonstrates the injustices that the criminal justice system imposes on people of color. In order to make change as a society there needs to be an open discourse about what’s wrong within the system.

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3 Responses to “Response to Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story”

  1. The overview of the film and the analysis really provided an additional insight to the documentary. Support and stability are essential for the emotional foundation of all human beings. If her family’s history has predisposed her to mental illness then she needs help not punishment. The current justice system has no justice. Any grown man who picks up a teenaged girl is responsible for his actions and any actions resulting. Can you imagine if the races were turned and it was a white girl and a black man? The outcome of the trial would have been much different.

    Thank you for bringing this piece to my attention, it is truly thought provoking and shows the need for the work you are invested in.

    Susan

  2. Heather Gibbard Says:

    I was horrified watching the programme it was very thought provoking but the thing I remember most is the song at the end when the credits came up. It literally stopped me in my tracks and I think it was by India Aria but I didnt catch the title, does anyone know what it was called?

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