Finding Kendrick Johnson


Nobody deserves to end up like this.

(2021) True Crime Documentary (Gravitas) Jenifer Lewis (narrator), Jackie Johnson, Mitch Credle, Kenneth Johnson, Lydia Tooley Whitlock, Kenyatta Johnson, Mark Austin, Barbara English, Dr. William R. Anderson, Michael Moore, Tyrone Brooks. Directed by Jason Pollock

 

\One of the basic tenets that holds our society together is the rule of law. The laws of the United States are particularly enlightened in many ways; nobody is theoretically supposed to be above the law. We have seen over the years that isn’t always the case.

Kendrick Johnson was a typical teenage boy living in Valdosta, Georgia. He liked sports, was close with his family who were devout Christians (all of the Johnson children have the initials “KJ” which stands for King Jesus, mother Jackie explains). He played video games, hung out with friends and was by all accounts a decent, nice guy.

On January 10, 2013, he didn’t return home from school. His mother, frantic, called her husband Kenneth – a truck driver, who was on the road at the time. He hurried back home, knowing that being out late without calling home was unlike his son. When he got home, he went straight to Lowndes High School, where he discovered that Kendrick had been found dead. His body was rolled up in a gym mat.

The coroner ruled that his death was an accident; that he had tried to reach down into the mat to get his shoe and had fallen into the hole made by the rolled up mat and asphyxiated, all while other kids were nearby.

But it didn’t make sense. For one thing, the dimensions of the mat were too small for Kendrick to just fall in. Jackie, who at first believed the Valdosta police’s explanation, began to get suspicious. She wanted a different forensic medical examination of her son’s body, so it was exhumed. Dr. William Anderson was hired to do the autopsy for the Johnson family. When he opened up the body, he discovered to his shock and horror that all the internal organs were gone; in their place were rolled up bits of newspaper. However, there was enough left that it was plain to Dr. Anderson that the boy had not died of positional asphyxia. There were also wounds on the body that indicated that he had been badly beaten before he died.

The Johnsons suspected a cover-up and launched a campaign to get justice for their son. At first, it seemed like their pleas were being heard; a federal investigation was launched. The case became national news. But abruptly, the investigator quit and the case was transferred to an office in Ohio, where it was quietly closed. But why? Why would anyone want to cover up the death of a high school kid?

The filmmakers try to give the crime larger context. We’re shown the history of crimes against the African-American population of the South, particularly in Valdosta, starting with the lynchings that took place locally as well as the Emmitt Till murder in Mississippi. The crimes are made relevant, showing footage of the deaths of Eric Garner in New York City and George Floyd in Minneapolis. Kendrick Johnson, the filmmakers are saying, is part of a larger pattern. Would the crime of his murder have been covered up had he been white?

To the credit of the filmmakers, they uncover some damning evidence that the federal investigators had been made unaware of (one of them, a Washington DC homicide detective named Mitch Credle, was absolutely gobsmacked that a filmmaker had uncovered the evidence but a federal investigation couldn’t). Was Kendrick Johnson the victim of a modern-day lynching?

Well, I’m not so sure on that score. That he was murdered I think is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. That there was a cover-up, absolutely for sure. Was the crime racially motivated? That is less clear. The filmmakers do point at a couple of likely suspects – fellow students at Lowndes whose father happened to be an FBI agent. But if the son of an FBI agent have been involved with the murder of a white boy, would the father still have covered it up? I think the answer is likely yes.

There are crime scene photos of Kendrick’s body as well as autopsy photos, along with pictures of Emmitt Till’s corpse and other victims of lynching, so this really isn’t for the squeamish. The film doesn’t give any warnings of the disturbing content, so do take this seriously – it isn’t pretty. In fact, it’s ghastly, but I understand why it was done – the brutality of these crimes should not be overlooked.

I do feel for the Johnson family. Certainly they have been denied justice and I do hope that this film helps them achieve it. However, when you compare the death of Kendrick Johnson to the death of Emmitt Till, the comparison doesn’t hold up. It seems likely that Johnson’s death was a dispute with another student that got out of hand. Whether or not it was racially motivated….well, given that Valdosta doesn’t have the most savory reputation when it comes to race relations, it seems likely, but there’s this whole “reasonable doubt” thing. That is also a part of the rule of law.

REASONS TO SEE: A compelling story that engenders sympathy for the Johnson family.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly lurid.
FAMILY VALUES: There are disturbing crime scene, historical and autopsy photographs.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The filmmakers spent four years investigating the case.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cold Justice
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Smartest Kids in the World

Broken Harts


The Hart children are all smiles here (including Devonte, far right) but the smiles hide a dark secret.

(2021) True Crime Documentary (Discovery Plus) Sheriff Tom Allman, Jennifer Hart, Sarah Hart, Devonte Hart, Cynthia Bartley, Lt. Shannon Barney, Irene Vanryckeshem, Niema Lightseed, Drew Bunch, Adam Beck, Cheryl Hart, Jackie LaBrecque, Dana DeKalb, Raquel Warley, Zaron Burnett, Mia Williams, Shonda Jones, Diane Drystad, Dr. Jen Johnston. Directed by Gregory Palmer

 

On March 26, 2018, Jennifer and Sarah Hart of Woodland, Washington, along with their six adopted children, drove off the side of a 100-foot cliff in Mendocino County, California. Initially, onl the bodies of the two women and three of their children were found; over the succeeding weeks, the remains of two other children washed up on Mendocino beaches. The remains of 15-year-old Devonte were never recovered.

At first, it was thought to be a tragic accident, but as facts began to emerge, a darker picture was painted. On the surface, it appeared that Jennifer and Sarah were loving mothers whose children were smiling and happy. Jennifer’s Facebook page was filled with pictures of family outings where the kids were dancing, smiling and singing, particularly Devonte who grew into national prominence because of his appearance at rallies for Black Lives Matter following the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO wearing a “Free Hugs” sign around his neck. A photo of Devonte weeping as he hugged a police officer would go viral.

But the kids showed up in school with bruises, prompting the Harts to withdraw their kids from the school system and homeschooling them. Their neighbors, Bruce and Dana DeKalb, reported that the children would show up at their door begging for food, pleading with them not to tell their moms. On the 23rd of March, Child Protective Services paid two visits to the Hart home, but nobody answered the door. They came again on the 26th, but by that time th family was already dead.

The movie is presented in typical true crime documentary fashion, with plenty of home movies, still pictures and talking head interviews with law enforcement officials – primarily Sheriff Tom Allman of Mendocino County who investigated the incident – friends and analysts. Psychiatrist Dr. Jen Johnston gives rational, calm and factual information about the psychology of family annihilation, while journalist Zaron Burnett talks about the racial implications of the crime, regularly reminding us that both women were white and the six adopted children were all African-American. His claim that the women got a pass because they were white ignores the fact that most lesbians will tell you that passes are infrequently given to the LGBTQ community and that at the time of the adoptions, there were several states – including Texas, where the kids were originally from – that didn’t allow same-sex adoption, although because they went through an agency in Minnesota where the couple was living at the time, they were able to bypass those restrictions.

Palmer clearly makes Jennifer Hart the villain of the piece, making Sarah more or less an accomplice. There is an awful lot of editorializing and assumptions going on, some of it on the side of common sense, some of it a reach. Allman makes a case for a national registry of child abusers; had such a thing existed, it might have given Child Protective Services in Washington the ability to pull the kids out of the Hart home before their adoptive mothers took them on that final, tragic road trip.

While parts of the movie are dry, I thought that the real crime was trying to ascribe motives based on conjecture to be a disservice. Any good law enforcement official, particularly those involved in the prosecutorial aspect of it, will tell you that a competent investigation sticks to what can be proven. Unfortunately, the filmmakers here go too often for sensationalism and sound bites, perhaps in an effort to show that society failed these six kids. In fact, society did fail these children, but not necessarily in the way some of the commentators here opine.

REASONS TO SEE: Methodically presented.
REASONS TO AVOID: Needed more of Dr. Johnson and less of Burnett.
FAMILY VALUES: The content is disturbing overall, with descriptions of child abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the Hart children were adopted through the Permanent Family Research Center in Minnesota.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Murder: The Family Next Door
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Deliver Us From Evil (2021)

American Murder: The Family Next Door


The smiling faces of the brutally murdered.

(2020) True Crime Documentary (NetflixShanann Watts, Chris Watts, Sandi Rzucek, Frank Rzucek, Celeste Watts, Bella Watts, Mark Jamieson, Ronnie Watts, Cindy Watts, Frankie Rzucek, Nickole Atkinson, Nichol Kessinger, Michael Rourke, Luke Epple, Jim Benemann, Marcelo Kopcow, Tom Mustin, Theresa Marchetta, Karen Leigh. Directed by Jenny Popplewell

 

The Watts family of Frederick, Colorado seemed to be as normal as they come. Chris Watts worked for an oil company; his wife Shanann – 15 weeks pregnant – worked for a marketing company. She had arrived home from a business trip early at nearly 2am on August 13, 2018, dropped off by her friend and colleague Nickole Atkinson. Later that day, when Shanann missed an OB-GYN appointment and after Nickole texted her friend without getting a response, Atkinson called Chris to let her know she was worried about Shanann.

At the Watts residence, it turned out that Shanann and both of their daughters – four-year-old Bella and three-year-old Celeste – were all missing. The police were called. Chris addressed the media and pleaded for the safe return of his family, but as the investigation continued, the picture of a perfect family began to unravel and it turns out that the couple was having intimacy issues, despite the fact that Shanann was pregnant.

Eventually, the truth came out and it would send shock waves throughout the community that the family lived in, but also through the families of both Chris and Shanann. Those who have any sort of interest in true crime can guess where the investigation led.

British filmmaker Popplewell takes a unique spin on the events of a case that was fairly well-known at the tail end of 2018 (he would be convicted in November of that year, a mere four months after the crimes were committed which is lightning fast by judicial standards). Rather than using tried-and-true true crime tropes like dramatic recreations, talking-head interviews with the family and friends of those involved as well as the investigators, and expert testimony, she tells the story entirely through social media posts by the victim, text messages from the victim to her husband and to Atkinson, and police surveillance footage of both the polygraph, the confession as well as body-cam footage of the initial response to the victim’s home.

I give Popplewell full marks on this unique spin on the true crime documentary. You won’t see another film quite like it, and you get a bit of a sense of who the victim was as well as her husband. This serves to give the story an immediacy that sometimes lacks from other true crime documentaries, but it also lacks the emotional impact. We see things from a distance; for the most part, the family was depicted as happy and normal but when the computer was turned off, reality was a different story. For those who routinely watch true crime shows like Dateline: NBC and 48 Hours, this will feel familiar; it will also feel like you know what happened even before the police get their confession, even if you aren’t familiar with the details of the case as Da Queen was not, yet she accurately predicted who the killer would be, basically from the moment that they were reported missing.

Fredrick is the kind of suburban neighborhood that is movie-perfect; manicured lawns and beautiful homes, kids playing in the streets, everybody knows everybody else. Spielberg couldn’t have painted a more comforting picture, but yet a brutal crime took place here nevertheless which should give the viewer pause. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.

REASONS TO SEE: A unique presentation of a true crime documentary.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really very surprising for even casual followers of true crime.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The crime was also depicted in a 20/20 episode as well as on episodes of Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz. The murder was also the subject of Lifetime movie Chris Watts: Confessions of a Killer which the family of Shanann Watts was not consulted about and spoke out against
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Any number of shows on the Discovery ID channel.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Herb Alpert Is…