Netflix’s The Cyntoia Brown Story: the controversial documentary didn’t tell us everything

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Cyntoia Brown Long has shared her thoughts on Netflix’s “unauthorised” documentary, Murder To Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story.

Updated on 30 April 2020: Just seven days after 16-year-old Cyntoia Brown was arrested for murder in 2004, documentarian Dan Birman began recording her story.

Since then, he has collected over 200 hours of footage – and this will form the basis of Netflix’s Murder To Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story.

However, while many are intrigued by the promise of yet another true-crime documentary, the film’s subject has since shared her thoughts about the “unauthorised” examination of her incarceration in a (now deleted) tweet.

“While I was still incarcerated, a producer who has old footage of me made a deal with Netflix for an UNAUTHORISED documentary, set to be released soon,” shared Brown-Long. “My husband and I were as surprised as everyone else when we first heard the news because we did not participate in any way.”

She added: “I am currently in the process of sharing my story, in the right way, in full detail, and in a way that depicts and respects the woman I am today.

“And, while I pray that this film highlights things wrong in our justice system, I had nothing to do with this documentary.”

It is worth noting that the documentary has failed to depict Brown’s life after she was granted her freedom, and only briefly touches the part of her life that Brown-Long credits with her peace today: her relationship with her “amazing husband” Jamie Long, who goes by J. Long.

The couple met in January 2017, after Long – inspired by Brown’s story – sent her a letter in prison. Four months later, Long traveled to Tennessee to meet Brown in person.

“When I went in to see her, I knew right then she would be my wife,” Long said, during an interview on The Breakfast Club radio show. 

The pair were engaged two years later. “I bought my wife’s wedding ring while she was still in prison, and we didn’t know if she was getting out,” he said.

The pair married while Brown was still in prison. Indeed, news of Brown-Long’s marriage broke alongside the announcement of her memoir, Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System, in August 2019, when the press release listed her name as “Brown-Long,” as opposed to “Brown” .

The documentary, likewise, doesn’t focus on Brown-Long’s life after prison: namely, the fact that she’s a vocal advocate for criminal justice reform.

While she was still in prison, she received her associate’s degree from Lipscomb University. Brown also worked with Tennessee’s Juvenile Justice System to help counsel young people at risk, too.

And, since her release, Brown-Long has gone on a book tour and spoken at college campuses, like the University of Pennsylvania, Tufts, and the University of Virginia.

“I fully intend to step into that and to share my experiences as often as I can, with whoever I can, in the hopes that it can bring about more understanding about what goes on in the system with young girls who find themselves in the situation that I did,” she told NBC News.

“There’s nothing special about me. There’s, I can’t tell you how many Cyntoia Browns still in prison,” she said. “The women who helped me get to this point, they’re still in prison for 51 years and up with ridiculous sentences. And they don’t have hope right now.”

As reported on 15 April 2020: 

Who is Cyntoia Brown?

Cyntoia Brown had a difficult start in life. Put up for adoption by her drug addict mother, she found herself in and out of the juvenile justice system and soon wound up a homeless runaway.

The teen survived multiple rapes and assaults, and was forced into sex slavery by her then-boyfriend, a pimp known as Kut Throat, who regularly sold her for drug money.

Then, in 2004, the 16-year-old was arrested for murdering a 43-year-old man. She told the courts that Johnny Allen had picked her up for sex, and that she had been forced to shoot him in self-defence. Despite this, and despite her young age, she was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison. 

Why was Cyntoia Brown sentenced to life in prison?

Prosecutors at the time said Brown shot Allen in the head while he was sleeping, stole money and guns, took his truck, and fled the scene. They argued the killing wasn’t motivated by self-defense, but robbery.

Brown has always maintained that she didn’t shoot Allen to rob him. And, as so many have since pointed out, it’s important to remember that the teenager was a victim herself, too.

“If you look at Cyntoia’s original transcripts, they are peppered with the phrase ‘teen prostitute,’” Derri Smith, founder and CEO of non-profit End Slavery Tennessee, recently told CNN.

“Well we know today there’s no such thing as a teen prostitute… because this teen may think that she decided this was her idea to be raped multiple times a day and give money to someone else, it’s pretty clear there’s an adult behind that who’s manipulating and exploiting her.”

Cyntoia Brown
Cyntoia Brown speaks at a book signing for her memoir.

What happened to Cyntoia Brown?

Brown was a model inmate. And so, in 2019, after nearly a decade of legal challenges (and support from celebrities such as Rihanna, Ashley Judd and Kim Kardashian West), Governor Bill Haslam granted Brown’s request for clemency.

“Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16. Yet, imposing a life sentence on a juvenile that would require her to serve at least 51 years before even being eligible for parole consideration is too harsh, especially in light of the extraordinary steps Ms. Brown has taken to rebuild her life,” a statement from Haslam’s office read.

“Transformation should be accompanied by hope.”

Brown left prison in August 2019, 45 years early. She is now an author and motivational speaker, and still mentors at-risk teens.

What has Cyntoia Brown said about her story?

Speaking to The Guardian, Brown said: “I speak to [teenagers] about what led up to me being in that [trafficking] situation and how it’s not about some guy picking you up off the street corner and holding a gun to your head and making you do certain things.

“Being young, caring and so impressionable can make us more vulnerable. And social media is so dangerous now in the way that it commodifies women and glamourises breaking your back to appear beautiful to people and killing yourself for likes and follows.

“We have to have conversations about how that can make us vulnerable and how to protect ourselves from that as women through healthier thinking patterns.”

What has Netflix said about the Cyntoia Brown documentary?

The synopsis for Netflix’s Murder To Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story reads: “After 16-year-old Cyntoia Brown is sentenced to life in prison, questions about her past, physiology and the law itself call her guilt into question.”

Is there a trailer yet?

Yes, and you can watch it here:

What has the director of Murder To Mercy said?

Director Dan Birman has said that he hopes Brown’s story offers a “lens into a larger story about juvenile justice not just in Tennessee but across the nation.”

“We can only hope we do stories to get people to at least consider more than one point of view,” Birman told The Tennessean. “While Cyntoia was the focus of this story, I have never lost sight of the fact that children get caught up in these horrible situations.”

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When is Murder To Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story coming to Netflix?

The 1hr 36min documentary has been available to stream on Netflix since the 29 April.

Images: Getty/Netflix

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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