Monday night picture thinking about murder final. (Picture: HBO)
Monday night’s final thinking about murder saw HBO’s true-crime series about a controversial murder trial in the small town of Beatrice, Nebraska, take an unusual (and potentially dangerous) turn as the town’s Community Theater presented a “documentary play” about the crime .
Title Gage County, NE, the piece was commissioned on behalf of the HBO series, with text taken from court transcripts and interviews with those involved. Additionally, many viewers of the show were connected to the victim (Helen Wilson) or the Beatrice Six, the group of people who were convicted of killing her.
“The night of the opening performance was the most nerve-wracking night,” says Nanfu Wang, who directed the docuseries. “I stayed up very late, and I think you saw [in the episode] that the actors were extremely nervous. They had received personal threats. The reaction from the community was crazy.
Indeed, the docuseries show the police presence outside the theater before the first performance and record some of the venom that was spat at the performers on social media. But disturbing as it may seem, Wang was more worried about the people inside the room. “We invited everyone who was involved in the story from very opposite sides,” she says. “My fear was that they would walk into the theater and see each other and get into a physical fight. For the whole performance – an hour and a half – I held my breath.
So why do it? Why order this piece in the first place, and why continue after the threats have poured in?
For Wang, the 2019 Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning director A childish nation, the performance was key to confronting how Beatrice had been torn apart by crime. In the first five episodes of thinking about murderit shows how facts were faked and memories manipulated to convict the Beatrice Six, and it shows how many of those responsible for those convictions refused to consider that they could have been wrong.
This discord extends beyond those related to crime. Wang explains, “I realized that more than half of the community believed the story that the Beatrice Six were guilty, and I was shocked at how the false memories affected not only those directly involved, but this false belief could be held so strongly by so many people. As a filmmaker, [I wondered] how can i represent this? It would be simple to just tell the story by interviewing and showing everyone involved, but how can I include community voices? »
She landed on the piece as the best way to hear people from Beatrice.
“Nanfu was really interested in giving a voice to the community and how to do it by doing something together,” says Cecilia Rubino, a New York-based theater artist who directed NE Gage County and worked with local artists to put together the script.
As the play took shape, Rubino saw firsthand how dramatizing the community’s most painful history affected the performers. “I was very moved by all the actors,” she says. “But especially a few of them who had grown up there and were only in the play because they had kids and really wanted to be sure that their community and their city was going to be represented in a way where things could heal. A lot of older actors were there in Beatrice [in the 80s]: They knew things, and it added dimensionally to the piece. I was able to take what they were saying in rehearsal and just layer it.
For example, one of the cast members wrote the melody for a song that was used in the show’s opener, and several of the actors actually spoke to the people they portrayed in order to inform their portrayals. .
Wang and Rubino made sure the cast included a mix of people who thought the Beatrice Six were guilty and people who thought they were innocent. As Rubino says, “It was part of the question, ‘Where are you? Who are you with? And how do we collaborate so that we can actually share something meaningful? »
Some might say that even with this chance of a cure, it was too risky to stage a show whose very existence infuriated so many. As Wang herself concedes, “We didn’t know what the outcome of the play would be.”
Fortunately, the show had a profound impact on those who saw it. After the performance, the documentary shows loved ones of Helen Wilson and Joe White (one of the Beatrice Six) reunited to talk about the pain they’ve all carried for decades. If nothing is quite fixed, at least there is an attempt at compassion. “It was better than I had hoped for,” Wang said. “Everyone was so receptive.”
Meanwhile, the final episode also includes a long scene where Burt Searcey, the officer most responsible for jailing the Beatrice Six, refuses to accept his missteps. He argues directly with Wang and tells her that she is an irresponsible filmmaker.
His objections, coupled with a scene where several people from Helen Wilson’s family continue to support him, are a fascinating counterbalance to the uplifting breakthroughs created by the play. Wang said, “I think if the movie ended with a happy ending, and everyone reconciled and changed their minds… Well, that’s beautiful, and I was hoping for that.” But this is not the reality. I didn’t want the story to feel like a fairy tale at the end. I wanted it to reflect more the complexity of reality. So that’s where the movie ends: there’s a group of people who have changed their minds, but some still manage to do so.
The six episodes of thinking about murder are now available to stream on HBO Max.
Mark Blankenship is the editor of Primetimer. Tweet it at @IAmBlankenship.