Mind Over Murder: A Story About, Among Other Things, a Heroic Theatre Company

The deep, dark, dirty secret of Travalanche is that its author spends much more of his time watching contemporary television than either classic movies or theatre. I tend not to blog about contemporary stuff because, well, EVERYBODY does that, and so I feel we fill a niche here by giving more attention to the old and obscure. That said, on occasion, we have felt motivated to review current shows, sometimes with surprising success. My review of the French program Bonfire of Destiny turned out to be one of my top posts, ranking #20 in readership among 7,000 articles. My piece on Lt. Joe Kenda: Homicide Hunter definitely falls somewhere in the top 100. Anyway this week, we watched a true crime doc series whose themes differ from the usual matter of this blog, but not as much as might be supposed, for it really went a long way to restoring some of my faith and hope in America, and also (believe it or not) the American theatre. WARNING: I always include spoilers.

The six episode HBO series is Mind Over Murder by Nanfu Wang, not to be confused with the 2005 TV movie of the same name starring Tori Spelling (although we undoubtedly would find that one rewarding…in different ways). Wang’s series chronicles the story of the Beatrice Six, a sextet of marginal people who were convicted in 1989 of the 1985 rape and murder of an elderly woman in the small town of Beatrice, Nebraska. Later, all were exonerated through DNA evidence and the exposure of apparently coerced confessions of five of them, determined through careful examination of the video record. There was never any hard evidence (zero) that any of them had anything to do with the crime, and yet the stigma of the publicity and the incarceration ruined their lives. And law enforcement’s focus on this group of people (some of whom didn’t even know each other) meant that the real perpetrator was never brought to justice. The only thing these people had in common was that they were at the fringes of the community: a couple of them were mentally ill, a couple of others had relatively modest rap sheets, one of the men is conspicuously effeminate, another is a drifter from out of town, and one of the women had the bad luck to live on the floor above the crime scene. That’s it!

I knew people like this in my hometown, everybody does, and that’s kind of the point. The group was falsely implicated by an acquaintance who was looking to reduce his own sentence for an unrelated crime (a galling turn of events, especially since he was the husband of one of the six). The first couple of suspects didn’t have the blood type of a sample found at the crime scene, so the lead investigator, a local deputy (aided by an unprincipled psychologist) coached the first suspects to implicate the others, until they finally found someone (a completely random person, it turns out) who had the correct blood type. None of them had done anything wrong (at least not concerning this case), but they were advised by the authorities, and their own counsels, to confess and take pleas. Only one of them did not confess. He was convicted by the testimony of the other five, and received the longest sentence. He stuck to his guns, and finally persuaded an attorney to perform a DNA test, which revealed who the real culprit was. The six were exonerated. The man who actually committed the crime was already dead, so justice was NOT done for the victim’s family. Later the five surviving members, and the family of the sixth, who had died,, won a civil judgment against the County for millions of dollars. It’s a rural county however lacking adequate funds for the payout. They’ve had to raise the money for the restitution through taxation, which as you can imagine is unpopular in this conservative community.

But Beatrice is not ALL conservative, it turns out. Did someone say “theatre company”? Part of the thread of the story, culminating at the climax, is a local community theatre’s laudable effort to tell the story of the event through a theatre piece based on actual transcripts. Naturally, their efforts to do so are regarded with hostility by some, though in the end, their even-handed efforts to do so prove convincing to many and help to heal the two factions in the divided town. I, who have had my doubts and fears about the future of theatre (especially since the time of Covid) found this angle of the story completely moving. Not that theatre must be utilitarian to justify its existence, but it should at least be relevant and important. In this particular town, nothing was more important, and these actors were just as vital in their social function as any doctors, lawyers, truck drivers…or police. And make no mistake: it took a lot of bravery to do what the Beatrice Community Players did to justify the middle name of their company. They received many threats.

As to hope for America? The title of Wang’s series, Mind Over Murder, proves to have two meanings. She became interested in this case because of the police’s use of planted false memories, which reminded her of similar tactics employed by police in her native China. (Hello? It’s not usually a good sign if your police department share tactics with an authoritarian dictatorship). But there’s more to it than this, for not only did some of the six begin to believe this invented narrative themselves but SO DID MOST OF THE PEOPLE IN THE COMMUNITY. Yet this is where the film gave me hope. Because the stubborn insistence of so many people in Beatrice that these six people were guilty irrespective of all physical evidence to the contrary resonated with what two thirds of America has endured from the other third over the past six or seven years. Not just the Big Lie of 2020, but also the lies that began with Trump’s ride down the escalator. Tens of thousands of lies, swallowed, downplayed, justified, defended, or ignored, just because they like this guy, and they hate the people he hates. Beatrice, like Trump’s America, is all about “Belief”. This word keeps coming up. “I don’t believe that” they’ll say about a scientific test, or photographs and video they have seen with THEIR OWN EYES, but they DO “believe” that guy they like, based on nothing better than the hot air that comes out of his mouth. But, Ladies and Gentlemen, IN A WORLD OF OBJECTIVE REALITY, “BELIEF” DOES NOT ENTER INTO IT. Nature doesn’t give a good goddamn what you “believe in your heart” or “feel in your gut”. It will flood your town, burn your house, melt your iceberg, and freeze your jungle whether you “believe” it or not. And the guy who did the murder is the guy who did the murder, whether or not you approve of certain other people at the bottom of the pecking order.

But I said this show gave me hope, and it did. Because among the things this wonderfully balanced series depicts is lots of folks whose minds were already made up, attending this play in a somewhat hostile frame of mind…and changing their minds. This isn’t about left vs. right. It’s about reason vs. irrationality. As it happens, I have a much higher opinion of, say, Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney than I would have had a few years back. I don’t agree with them on a lot, but I looked at them with open eyes and witnessed certain things they did, and now I look at them differently. And if theatre, or film, can facilitate enhanced understanding of the truth like this, and conquer the powerful, seductive might of damaging fairy tales, then we do have, if you’ll forgive the expression, a prayer.