2015, TV

Making a Murderer (2015, Moira Demos, Laura Ricciardi)

This is a documentary in the grand tradition of The Thin Blue Line, Paradise Lost and Brother’s Keeper, but with the time-span of something like Hoop Dreams or American Promise. And, as a 10-episode TV show, it adds nearly unprecedented depth to its subject, comparable only to a Ken Burns documentary series, or Shoah.


Making a Murderer is, as you probably already know, about one of the great (known) injustices to befall an individual and his family in the recent history of the United States. Steven Avery was incarcerated for 18 years for a rape and assault he did not commit. Only three years after his release he was charged with murder. Both cases relied on the worst kind of evidence:  in the case of the first, it was an eye-witness; in the case of the second, the confession of a developmentally delayed child. (There is much more evidence connecting Avery to the second crime but, in the mind of the public, the confession likely played as important role as anything.)

Avery was a nogoodnik as a teen and young adult. His family was not a popular group of people and were felt as a blemish on an otherwise good American community. Avery did stupid things, sometimes criminal things, seemingly on a regular basis. But the worst of those – allegedly attempting to assault the wife of a sheriff’s deputy – was provoked. It should be noted that Avery has very little education and below average intelligence. (Like the rest of his family who, while not necessarily being economically poor, are socially poor, if you know what I mean).

It’s Avery’s reputation and Manitowoc County’s dislike of him and his family that likely lead to flawed investigation and eventual conviction of Avery for rape and assault. 18 years later, Avery was exonerated by DNA evidence. But the worst of it is that he probably could have been exonerated sooner than that, even before the DNA-testing technology was available, by competent police work, uninfluenced by personal feelings and grudges.

Where the story goes off the rails, and becomes essential viewing for anyone, is in the second episode, when Avery is accused and eventually charged with the murder of a disappeared woman. In this case there is physical evidence linking Avery to the crime. (There was none in the rape case). However, the accusation comes during the depositions of the Manitowoc County police for Avery’s lawsuit alleging misconduct in his initial case. You read that right: Avery is accused of murder while he just happens to be suing those charging him with murder. What follows is an eye-witness account of police incompetence or corruption (depending on your point of view) and the further destruction of the life of Steve Avery and his nephew.

This movie will make you angry. You will want to do something. You may want to hurt someone. Half of the pleasure (so to speak) of this film is its bias: it is firmly, completely on the side of Avery. And this bias will make you hurt. Because, according to the film’s version of events, the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department must be among the most corrupt and awful police departments in the United States of America.

Of course, this film could easily be accused of bias. But there’s something really important to remember about this bias: the full resources of the county of Manitowoc, and later the resources of the county of Calumet, supported by the State of Wisconsin, were attempting to prove Steven Avery guilty. The sensationalist news media were not helping. Beyond his lawyers and his folks, nobody was on Steven Avery’s side. It is the job of journalism to be fair, but sometimes fairness involves bias. In order to reach some kind of objectivity here, the filmmakers had to take the side of the accused. If journalists will not stand up for the poor, who will?

So, having dismissed the one major criticism I can think of, I must say that this is a landmark documentary film. It is the most in-depth true crime documentary I have ever seen and among the very, very best. It shows the true power of long-form documentary television. The buzz around it over Christmas just shows how a well-told story can mobilize people to thought and, in the case of the lead prosecutor’s Yelp page, action.

My greatest hope for this film is that it results in something similar to what happened after the release of The Thin Blue Line: the re-opening of Avery’s case (and, especially the case of his nephew). My second greatest hope is that more filmmakers choose to take their projects to Netflix or Amazon or other distributors that can support long-form content like this. Documentaries of this length and binge-worthiness about other problems in our society will surely help us all.

An instant classic.


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