It can already be said that the six-part series by the distinguished Chinese-American documentary filmmaker Nanfu Wang (Hooligan Sparrow, One Child Nation, In the Same Breath) is the best true-crime content of 2022. The story here follows the gruesome and bizarre case of the rape and murder of an old woman in the small town of Beatrice, Nebraska in 1985 and the subsequent sentencing of a group of six people who were found guilty of that crime. However, as in those television commercials, the verdict and long prison sentences are not the end of this incredible, almost unreal, shocking, horrific story, but actually the beginning of a crazy and absurd turn that, I guess, can only happen in America.
Wang made an extremely complex and well-rounded series that is not a mere exploitation of human misfortune, a classic sensationalistic treatment of people who have experienced a tragedy. “Mind Over Murder” is a series that tries and definitely succeeds in comprehensively and in-depth showing how such a shocking and gruesome event affected the whole place and how practically all the people who live there are still traumatized by the murder of the then 68-year-old local Helen Wilson. Until 1985, Beatrice was one of those typical American towns from the interior of the country, a place of 12 thousand inhabitants where almost everyone knew everyone at least by sight.
Somewhat following in the footsteps of the legendary American documentarian Frederick Wiseman, Wang in-depth, patiently, carefully and precisely builds a story about the American system, the mental structure of the people there, and shows in detail how shockingly unfair the world is sometimes. I will not go into the details of the case and the investigation in order not to spoil the story for those who plan to watch “Mind Over Murder”, but only four years after the murder in Beatrice, the investigation will begin to give its first results. It will soon turn out that as many as six people, three men and three women, took part in the murder, and after most of them confess what they were accused of, the whole story will experience a shocking and incredible turn.
It is hard to believe that something like this is really possible, and from the very beginning to the end, this whole story seems completely unreal, almost impossible. Even before Wang, various documentarians tried to film something about this shocking case, but no one succeeded, and this excellent author managed to gather practically all the key interlocutors for the story. From the majority of those who were convicted of participating in the murder to the investigators who handled the case during the year, family members of the murdered Helen Wilson, numerous locals. In addition to the fact that “Mind Over Murder” follows this entire case in detail and precisely in a true-crime style, we also follow the preparations of the local theater in which local amateurs perform and prepare a play about the whole story. And a documentary play that consists exclusively of police reports, court files and other official notes related to the Beatrice Six case.
In terms of content, Wang divided the series into three intertwining segments. In the first two episodes, we follow the murder investigation and the main character is the retired policeman Burt Searcey who led the investigation. In the second segment, the main focus is on Beatrice Six, that is, on six people who will be suspected, and soon convicted, of atrocities against Helen Wilson. The last, probably the most shocking and incredible part deals with the issue of the American justice system and the way in which the six were convicted in the first place. At the end of each episode, we go to the theater where the actors prepare a play that will be watched by all the locals at the end of the last episode, and that play will have a kind of cathartic effect for many.
And really masterfully Wang arranges this documentary mosaic, narratively he almost perfectly arranges the pieces of this incredible, and at the same time extremely complex and poignant story. Unlike numerous true-crime content that is often pure exploitation, cheap and morbid entertainment and whose sole purpose is to try to shock with often disgusting footage or photos of crimes, “Mind Over Murder” is a series that manages to show the characters not as monsters, but as people of flesh and blood. A series that manages to show how the system is often horrifyingly unfair and cruel, and how those weaker, unprotected, ordinary people, whom no one will ask too much about if something happens to them, can be very easy targets of the same system.