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Arts & Culture

INDEPENDENT LENS: Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story

Cyntoia Brown rides to the courthouse during her criminal trial.
Courtesy of Daniel H. Birman
Cyntoia Brown rides to the courthouse during her criminal trial.

Airs Sunday, March 27, 2011 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

In 2004, Cyntoia Brown was arrested for murder. There was no question that a 43-year-old man is dead and that she killed him. What mystified filmmaker Daniel Birman was just how common violence among youth is, and just how rarely we stop to question our assumptions about it. He wondered in this case what led a girl — who grew up in a reasonable home environment — to this tragic end?

"Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story" explores Cyntoia’s history and her future. Without attempting to excuse her crime as youthful indiscretion nor to vilify her as an example of a generation gone off the rails, Birman simply follows Cyntoia through six years of her life after the crime, and searches for answers to persistent questions.

The camera first glimpses Cyntoia the week of her arrest at age 16 and follows her for nearly six years. Along the way, nationally renowned juvenile forensic psychiatrist, Dr. William Bernet from Vanderbilt University, assesses her situation. We meet Ellenette Brown, Cyntoia’s adoptive mother who talks about the young girl’s early years. Georgina Mitchell, Cyntoia’s biological mother, meets her for the first time since she gave her up for adoption 14 years earlier. When we meet Cyntoia’s maternal grandmother, Joan Warren, some patterns begin to come into sharp focus.

Cyntoia wrestles with her fate. She is stunningly articulate, and spends the time to put the pieces of this puzzle together with us. Cyntoia's pre-prison lifestyle was nearly indistinguishable from her mother's at the same age. History — seemingly predestined by biology and circumstance — repeats itself through each generation in this family.

Cyntoia is tried as an adult, and the cameras are there when she is convicted and sentenced to life at the Tennessee Prison for Women. After the verdict, Cyntoia calls her mom to tell her the news. In the end, we catch up with Cyntoia as she is adjusting to prison, and struggling with her identity and hope for her future.

"Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story" is on Facebook.

Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story: Pretrial Interview
Video Excerpt: Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story
Video Extra: Cyntoia Recounts Her Past