We caught up with Sandra Bland’s mother in Philadelphia Saturday, where the Chicago native was attending the premier of “Jason’s Letter,” a film about Black Lives Matter.
While based on a true story, director/writer Terrance Tykeem’s film starring Vivica Fox is fictional, unlike a new film on Geneva Reed-Veal’s daughter, “Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland.”
HBO last week announced it has picked up the documentary by Academy Award-nominated filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. It’s scheduled to air on the cable movie channel in December.
Reed-Veal was in Philadelphia to support Tykeem and Samaria Rice, mother of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, on whom “Jason’s Letter” is loosely based. Tamir was playing with a pellet gun when he was shot to death by a Cleveland police officer in 2014.
The two mothers were joined at the Philly premier by the mothers of Eric Garner and Sean Bell — unarmed black suspects killed by police in 2014 and 2006, respectively.
“We spoke at a church yesterday, and after that did some radio and TV stations. I’m still out here speaking about Sandy and the movement,” Reed-Veal told the Chicago Sun-Times.
“We’ll be in Chicago in September for the premier of the HBO documentary on Sandy, which is one of the best things I’ve seen to date on what happened to my daughter, because a lot of it is in her own words,” she said.
That doesn’t mean she’ll be watching again anytime soon the film exploring the circumstances around the death of her 28-year-old daughter, found hanged in a jail cell in 2015, three days after being pulled over for a minor traffic infraction in Waller County, Texas.
One screening was enough for Reed-Veal.
“I’m sitting there at Tribeca watching with everyone else. Then I see my baby in the cell, lying on the ground, all these numbers around her. In these three years, I had never seen the crime scene, the photo of cell 95, where she was found. I’d refused,” she said.
“And seeing that thing tore me up. I left out of a side door, went back to the hotel and sank into extreme depression,” she said.
“My head was thrown right back to 2015. I was in the hotel, balled up and crying for three days. When I finally got myself together, I told them, ‘You all never told me you would use her real body. Do you understand that I have never seen that photo? Do you understand that I never wanted to see that?’ They were very sorry.
“I told them I can’t watch that movie anymore for the rest of the screenings. It’s too hard for me,” Reed-Veal said.
Bland was arrested July 10, 2015. A traffic stop quickly escalated; police dashcam video shows trooper Brian Encinia drawing his stun gun, trying to physically remove her from the car, Bland laying on the ground screaming. Her death later in a jail cell was ruled a suicide.
Davis and Heilbroner contacted the family days after the story broke, following Reed-Veal and her family on a two-year journey condensed to a two-hour documentary.
Encinia was subsequently fired and indicted for perjury. But to Reed-Veal’s chagrin, the charges were later dropped in exchange for the trooper giving up his badge and law enforcement.
Reed-Veal settled her federal wrongful-death lawsuit against Encinia, the Texas Department of Public Safety and Waller County for $1.9 million in September 2016.
Filled with disturbing and heretofore unrevealed details about the case, the film includes interviews with previously inaccessible Texas authorities, providing balance while poking holes in the official account of Bland’s death – and shining a clear spotlight on the racism behind the tragedy.
And it uniquely achieves insight into the Naperville woman who became a poster child for the #SayHerName hashtag.
“You get a chance to see the essence of who she was,” Reed-Veal said of some 30 “Sandy Speaks” video blogs with the charismatic Bland commenting on police abuse, race relations and life in general interspersed throughout the film, a prophetic voice from the grave.
Reed-Veal still travels the country pushing policing reform as part of “Mothers of the Movement,” moms who’ve lost children from police incidents nationwide over the past few years, fueling Black Lives Matter and a reexamination of police practices across the United States. But much has changed since conclusion of filming.
In February, she moved from Chicago to a little town in a state you’d least expect: Texas.
“When they refused to indict in my daughter’s death and only charged perjury, then dropped those charges to do nothing, I said, ‘No. I’m going back to Texas. And I’m going to give them hell’, ” said the former Near West Side resident, who was a part-time minister and ran her own real estate business.
“We’re working to try to put back into the Sandra Bland Act all the things they took out and working on a possible class-action suit. I needed to be on the ground here to do these things,” she said.
The Sandra Bland Act, offering protections for mentally ill who may harm themselves in jail, took effect September 2017. But its tougher anti-racial profiling measures sought were gutted before it passed.
Reed-Veal said it wasn’t easy having a film crew follow you around for two years, and that the result is both pleasing and disappointing.
“Dave [Heilbroner] made about 50 calls to my lawyer before Sandy’s body was even home yet and started following us from the fifth day, so they got to see us at the rawest of the raw,” she said.
“Some days I’d be like, ‘Get your cameras out of here. I’m having a Sandy day.’ Other days, they had to allow me to just cry,” she said. “The film wasn’t something we were allowed to talk about. The bad part about it is that you have 2 1/2 years of filming, and when you see it, you’re like, ‘That’s all?’ You’d think there would have been more.”