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film review

Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story tells the story of a young woman's quest for justice.Courtesy of Netflix

  • Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story
  • Directed by Daniel H. Birman
  • Classification N/A; 96 minutes

Rating:

3 out of 4 stars

I think we all have the right to be wary when it comes to Netflix and true-crime documentaries. The streaming service has been an active acquirer of non-fiction productions – someone has to, in this climate – but also leans toward the salacious (see Killer Inside, The Confession Tapes, Evil Genius). So when a new offering pops up in the queue with the word “murder” in the title, there is reason to doubt the production’s bona fides.

Yet, Daniel H. Birman’s Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story only uses a deadly incident to examine serious, sometimes profound questions of justice and social responsibility. There is the chance that Netflix subscribers hoping for a cheap thrill might walk away disappointed, but more likely they’ll be turned onto something far more upsetting.

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At the age of 16, Cyntoia Brown was already in danger of losing her life: Born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and put up for adoption by her birth mother, she flailed in school, eventually falling under the sway of a pimp, who prostituted her out before she was old enough to drive. One night, Johnny Michael Allen picked Brown up, offered her $150 and, after a fearful encounter at his home, was shot and killed. Brown said she was afraid for her life; Tennessee prosecutors argued that she was out to rob her client. No one at the time thought that the teenager should be considered a victim of sex trafficking, rather than the money-hungry sex worker that the state deemed her.

Brown speaks in her own defence during a court hearing.Courtesy of Netflix

Over the course of almost a decade, Birman tracks Brown’s struggle to appeal the life sentence handed down to her, and how her journey helps – extremely gradually – change the perception of victims in the U.S. justice system.

If Birman was only focused on Brown’s legal challenges, it would be compelling material, albeit a bit familiar to anyone who’s watched a similar seeking-delayed-justice drama, whether in the doc or feature-film sphere (see last winter’s Jamie Foxx-starring Just Mercy). Yet, Birman uses a good portion of his energy to also look at generational family trauma and how abuse can ricochet across decades. The filmmaker’s narrative and visual approach isn’t especially novel in style, but it is compassionate, detailed and persuasive in its assembly.

If the name Cyntoia Brown already rings a bell – perhaps from the advocacy dedicated on her behalf by famous faces such as Rihanna – then you may already realize how her story ends. But that is no excuse to ignore how her story started, either.

Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story is available to stream on Netflix starting April 29

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