Before handing out flyers of missing 8-year-old Relisha Rudd, volunteers and family members gather in a parking lot to prepare themselves. “We’re praying right now that people will no longer be comfortable with looking the other way,” says a community advocate. “We’re praying right now that people will not just be complacent or content.”
Her words cut neatly to both the grief and the hope at the heart of Black and Missing, Soledad O’Brien and Geeta Gandbhir’s four-part docuseries about the Black and Missing Foundation. The situation it paints is grim: According to an FBI statistic recited in the series, roughly 40% of people reported missing in 2019 were people of color, most of whom were Black — yet it’s young white women like Gabby Petito who seem to attract most of the attention, to the point that the phenomenon has its own name.
Black and Missing
The Bottom Line
Gripping, enraging, heartbreaking, inspiring.
As potent as Black and Missing can be in its anger and anguish, however, it stubbornly resists despair. Peeking through the series’ darkest moments is the hope that organizations like Black and Missing, and projects like Black and Missing, might work toward correcting that imbalance, slowly but surely.
The series centers loosely around the group’s founders, Derrica and Natalie Wilson, who aren’t sleuths but advocates — Derrica is a former police officer while Natalie’s expertise is in public relations. Together, the sisters-in-law work to harness the powers of media and law enforcement to push forward Black missing persons cases, with some notable victories: In one instance, an appearance on The View led to an anonymous tip that led to the recovery of teenager Mishell Green within hours of the episode’s airing.
Other cases are sprinkled in throughout, chronicled via interviews with the victims’ loved ones or the law enforcement officers involved in the case. There’s Amaria Hall, for instance, a teenager initially classified as a runaway despite her mother’s protestations. Or Tamika Huston, a young woman who vanished just months before Natalee Holloway but received only a fraction of the coverage. The most extensively covered case is that of Pam Butler, whose brother Derrick Butler would become one of Black and Missing’s most tireless volunteers. Where most of the cases are featured one at a time, Pam’s story is woven in through all four episodes and expands to include details about her perpetrator’s previous victims and the outcome of his trial.
Pam’s narrative gives Black and Missing a touch of the propulsive plotting that drives most true-crime hits. The filmmakers go so far as to build light cliffhangers into the episodes, even as they strenuously avoid sensationalizing the details. The choice has the added benefit of imposing some structure to a series that otherwise moves a bit randomly. The other cases presented in the series aren’t chronological timeline or grouped by theme, and the hourlong episode format seems less like a creative call than a pragmatic choice to avoid releasing a four-hour movie. But all, including Pam’s, are unified by a profound sense of regret: How much sooner might these families have been reunited, or found closure, if their Black loved ones had been treated with the same urgency and care granted white victims?
Of course, there are ugly reasons they’re not. Black and Missing takes time to connect the dots between the modern indifference to Black missing persons to negative media portrayals of Black life in general, to the tense relationship between law enforcement and Black communities, to the cycles of poverty that make Black kids especially vulnerable to predators, even to the cultural history of Black runaways going back to slave times. And every so often, a harrowing statistic is thrown out to emphasize the urgency of the cause (though as noted in the documentary itself, reliable numbers around missing people or human trafficking can be notoriously difficult to pin down).
Black and Missing‘s greatest power, though, lies in simply hearing people share their experiences firsthand. The statistics you might mix up later, and the historical context you’ll find better fleshed-out elsewhere. But it’s hard to look away from a mother going about her weekly routine of driving around town looking for her daughter, or to miss the pained affection in a stepdad’s voice as he remembers happier times with his abducted little girl — or, for that matter, to ignore the Wilsons’ reminders that stories like theirs are worth hearing.
“If you ask anyone to name three missing African-Americans, I guarantee they’ll come up short,” Natalie says early on. Black and Missing ensures that’ll be a bit less true today than it was yesterday.
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