The Filmmakers of 'Commuted' on Supporting Returning Citizens & Criminal Justice Reform

By Brigitte McIndoe for WORLD

Danielle Metz, a formerly incarcerated community organizer, serves as co-producer to share her experience with vulnerability, humility and hope.

When a triple-life sentence is reduced to time served, what steps do you take to rebuild yourself? This was the question faced by Danielle Metz, whose commutation by former President Obama resulted in a second chance at the life she thought she’d lost. Metz, a mother to two young children at the time of her incarceration, spent 23 years in prison on non-violent drug charges as a first-time offender.

Directed by Nailah Jefferson and produced by Darcy McKinnon, “Commuted” tenderly explores the innumerable challenges faced by not only individuals re-entering society after decades of incarceration, but their family members as well. For Metz, her sentencing meant leaving her son and daughter behind, who, now grown with families of their own, must grapple with their own complicated emotions surrounding their mother’s homecoming.

The filmmakers, including Metz, spoke with WORLD to share what their purpose was in making this film: to explore connection, reunification and healing – not true crime.

“This is not the kind of film about a woman in incarceration that you might expect,” McKinnon said. “This is a personal film, it's a lyrical film, it's poetic, it's emotional.”

In this exclusive interview, read first-hand about Metz’s return home, how the film represents America’s unjust criminal justice system, and what the filmmakers hope audiences learn from this story.

WORLD: How did you meet Danielle and decide to make a film about her story?

Nailah Jefferson: Danielle and I attended the same church, and I remember, not long after she came home, our preacher told a story. He said, “There's a woman, she had this sentence, and everybody thought that this would be it for her. But God has the final say.” Then Danielle came out, and her family was in the front crying, and everybody in the church cheered. Our pastor called me, and he said, “She has a story, and you are a storyteller, so I think you need to tell this story through film.” Once I got to meet Danielle and hear more about her and the sentence that she was given – how unfair it was, how she was separated from her children, how her family pulled together to make sure that she wasn't forgotten about – I thought this was a story that people needed to hear. 

Darcy McKinnon: I've known Nailah for almost a decade now. I really admired her first film, “Vanishing Pearls,” and the way she used documentary not just to tell a story, but to show care for people who'd endured hardship. I also have a lot of friends who work in the criminal justice reform space, so I'd known about Danielle and cases like hers, and it was an opportunity for me to learn more about how the system impacts women and families.

W: What was important for you to convey in "Commuted"?

Nailah Jefferson: We had to listen to Danielle and follow her lead. And what we landed on was, “You're more than the worst mistake you ever made” – that's a Bryan Stevenson quote. We didn't want to make a film about crime; we wanted to make a film about a woman who made a choice and the repercussions of that choice. We wanted to show people that this isn't a singular incident. This didn't just happen at Danielle. It happened to so many women that she was incarcerated with.

Women who weren't willing to testify against their partners were facing the same types of charges unfairly. And these weren't little charges – this is triple life. You're taking someone's life away because they won't do exactly what you say. They didn't commit these crimes. So, when we talk about the premise of the story, it's very much about facing these injustices, facing the wrongs that were done to you, and then when you get a second chance, what do you do with it? It's been an honor to see what Danielle does with her second chance.

Darcy McKinnon: We had people put expectations of the kind of story they thought Nailah and Danielle should be telling. There's an impulse to make something rooted in true crime, and we were not interested in making work that was not rooted in Danielle's own life and experience. Part of what we had to continually articulate was that we were not making a film that could fit into a box; this is a film by a Black woman director who has a vision that's unique and singular about a woman whose life was unique and singular. We had to stand up for that for a long time in the process, and I'm glad that we did.

W: Danielle, how did you feel throughout the filmmaking process?

Danielle Metz: I'm over the moon about the finished documentary. I'm really proud of how it came out – it's a true masterpiece to me. To know that they put all this work into making sure that my story was portrayed in the best light…I'm really proud of it.

The hardest part for me was having my kids [in it], because I'm very guarded with them. I feel like my choices caused so much trauma in their lives; I want the rest of their lives to be a breeze. So I always have them in the forefront of my mind with all the decisions that I make now. 

Going back to a place that I wanted to forget [was challenging], but I had to dig inside of myself to be as transparent as I could be. Because I had been in prison so long, I just want to throw that in the sea of forgiveness and move on with my life. But that would always be a part of my life, so going back and talking, it worked up a lot of pain inside of me, but I feel like through expressing the pain and revisiting it, I began to heal from it.

I share my story and let people know that I'm home, but you have to remember I brought everything that I had from prison home with me. Talking about it would evoke emotions that I thought would never come up again, so it was hard for me to share that. But I wanted the world to hear my voice. Many stories have been out there about me, about the role I played, some of which were so far from the truth. I get to tell my version of it now.

W: How does Danielle’s experience reframe the narrative of incarcerated people?

Nailah Jefferson: One thing that I would ask Danielle was, “How is it that you got up every day? What kept you going?” And she talked about the sisterhood that she had in prison, and as she's returned home, she talks about going back and getting her sisters. She also told me stories about how men would always be visited in prison, but it's women who get forgotten. When we think about the large conversations that we have about prison reform, it's often men, Black men, that we see. Those are the images that are pushed to the forefront. It’s women like Danielle and the other women that she was in prison with whose stories get lost. 

I hope that "Commuted" can bring Danielle and her sisters back into the forefront of the conversation when we talk about clemency, prison reform, and the damage that these long and punitive sentences do to families.

Darcy McKinnon: There's a concept that was new to me as someone who has been involved in criminal justice advocacy: boyfriend crimes, which is a slang term for women who are caught up in conspiracy charges. Conspiracy is a statute and technique that prosecutors use to pressure defendants to plea – they say that if your wife/mother/daughter is also included in the charges, they're hoping there will be pressure on you as a defendant to flip. If you've done any one single thing to advance the work of this alleged conspiracy, you are charged with the same criminal charges as the person who actually is accused of doing the crime.

What happens in these situations is there's this dehumanization that allows for sweeping sentences for insurmountable lengths of time granted to people without a real consideration of what that means. And in Danielle's case, the jury was given erroneous sentencing recommendations.

Danielle says this amazing thing in the film – she got one of her life sentences reversed, and she said, “How could it have meant so much during the sentencing that I needed to stay for life, but means so little when it gets reversed that I still have two more life sentences?” There's something so crazy about the idea of a triple life sentence, because it's so meaningful at the moment that you have to have three life sentences, and yet overturning a life sentence, which is insurmountable in itself, makes no difference in your incarceration. That's the kind of cognitive dissonance that we’re experiencing in America with incarceration.

W: Danielle, what can you share about your experience as a returning citizen?

Danielle Metz: When I came home, I would see this glitter in my mom's eyes. She was just happy to see me walk through the house. I was so elated to be here, because I dreamed about this so many times. But it was really hard reconnecting with my son, because he taught himself not to feel anymore. How could you just numb yourself to feeling the love for me? Sometimes he would think that I was never going to be home. With my daughter, we’re still building; she's still getting to know me, I'm still getting to know her.

Because I was gone for such a long time, they don't know what it feels like. You have to have walked in my shoes to understand it. Reconnecting is a big deal, and it's really hard for me, for my family. When I was incarcerated, I was hoping that somebody would remember me. And when you come out, you’re in real time. You’ve got to pay bills, find a job. We’re consumed by the real world, and everything is so different. 23 years is a lifetime. Connecting is hard, but I'm still trying every day. 

W: What do you hope the audience takes away from "Commuted"?

Nailah Jefferson: I hope that people who have experienced the prison system and family members of those who are currently incarcerated see this film and feel encouraged, inspired and hopeful to know that they can come home and start again. I hope this film speaks to them and lets them know that they're not forgotten and that their voice and their story doesn't need to be boxed in; it doesn't have to be sensationalized. We can talk about all of the dreams and hopes that you had for yourself.

Danielle is an extraordinary person. All the things that she has achieved since coming home will help uplift people. [It will] help them to think about what they can do upon their return and how their family members can help navigate them through their transition into the free world.

Once you are released from prison, that's when the real work begins. In those conversations that Danielle and [her daughter] Gleneisha are having, there's some tension between them, and the third party who's really responsible for this – the criminal justice system – is not in the room. We can’t blame them and say, “You did this.” It's just the two of them, and they have to figure out that space, forgiveness and grace. A lot of families are having those conversations, and I want them to know that you can continue to work through it, and there's so much more on the other side.

Watch more with Danielle, Nailah and Darcy:
"Commuted" is now streaming online, on YouTube and on the PBS app. 

"Commuted" is a co-presentation of AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange and America ReFramed and part of our Liberated Lives collection

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