‘Murder to Mercy’ Review: Rethinking a Life Sentence

In 2004 at the age of 16, Brown was arrested on charges of shooting and killing Johnny M. Allen at his home in Nashville. Brown (who has since married and goes by the name Cyntoia Brown-Long), under pressure from her then boyfriend and pimp, met the 43-year old real estate agent outside a fast-food restaurant, where he was soliciting sex. Brown testified that she acted in self-defense when she thought Allen was reaching for a gun. She was tried and convicted as an adult and eventually sentenced to life in prison. In November of 2017, in the midst of the #MeToo movement, a Nashville local TV news story about the case went viral, drawing the attention of celebrity activists and the governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam. In one of his last acts in office, the Republican leader granted Brown clemency and commuted her sentence.

The film, directed by Daniel H. Birman, is a continuation of his 2011 PBS documentary, which first drew attention to the case. The movie isn’t a sensational true-crime excavation in the mold of what has become its own streaming genre. Instead, it thoughtfully examines how advances in the medical and cultural understanding of mental health, including inherited trauma, are critical considerations rarely extended to earlier convictions. In Brown’s case, a merciful re-examination allowed for a second chance.

In the spirit of Richard Linklater’s narrative feature “Boyhood,” the visual power of “Murder to Mercy” lies in witnessing Brown’s evolution from the confused 16-year old girl facing a life sentence to the self-aware 31-year-old woman who emerged into freedom last year. The minimalist direction and subtle scoring serve to center Cyntoia’s own words and those of both her adoptive mother and biological mother in interviews. This is a quiet, elegant memoir that humanizes a systemic American challenge — and offers a narrative catharsis only possible with real-life mercy.

Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. Watch on Netflix.

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