Monday night's finale of Mind Over Murder saw the HBO true-crime series about a controversial murder trial in the small town of Beatrice, Nebraska, take an unusual (and potentially dangerous) turn as the town's community theater performed a "documentary play" about the crime.
Titled Gage County, NE, the play was commissioned on behalf of the HBO series, with text taken from court transcripts and interviews with those involved. What’s more, many of the show's audience members were related to the victim (Helen Wilson) or to the Beatrice Six, the group of people who were convicted of killing her.
“The night of the opening performance, it was the most nerve wracking night,” says Nanfu Wang, who directed the docuseries. “I stayed up very late, and I think you saw [in the episode] that the actors were extremely nervous. They had received personal threats. The backlash from the community was crazy.”
Indeed, the docuseries shows the police presence outside the theater before the first performance, and it records some of the venom that was spewed at the performers on social media. But as unsettling as that was, Wang was more worried about the people inside the venue. “We invited everyone who was involved in the story from the very opposing sides,” she says. “My fear was they were going to come into the theater and see each other and engage in a physical fight. During the whole performance — a hour and a half — I was holding my breath.”
So why do it? Why commission this play in the first place, and why keep going after the threats poured in?
For Wang, the director of 2019 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner One Child Nation, the performance was critical to confronting how Beatrice had been split by the crime. In the first five episodes of Mind Over Murder, she demonstrates how facts were fudged and memories manipulated to convict the Beatrice Six, and she shows how many of the people responsible for those convictions have refused to consider that they might have been wrong.
This discord spreads beyond those connected to the crime. Wang explains, “I realized more than half of the community believed in the story that the Beatrice Six were guilty, and it was shocking to me how false memory not only affected the people who were directly involved, but that false belief could be held so strongly by so many people. As a filmmaker, [I wondered] how can I represent that? It would be simple to just tell the story by interviewing and showing all the people who are involved, but how do I include the community’s voices?”
She landed on the play as the best way to hear from the people of Beatrice.
“Nanfu was really interested in giving the community a voice, and how to do that through making something together,” says Cecilia Rubino, a New York-based theater artist who directed Gage County NE and worked with the local performers to assemble the script.
As the play took shape, Rubino saw firsthand how dramatizing the community’s most painful story affected the performers. “I was very moved by all of the actors,” she says. “But particularly a couple of them who had grown up there and were only participating in the piece because they had children and really wanted to be sure that their community and their town was going to be represented in a way where things could heal. Many of the older actors were there in Beatrice [in the 80s]: They knew things, and that added dimensionally to the play. I was able to take what they said in rehearsal and just layer it in.”
For instance, one of the cast members wrote the melody for a song that was used in the opening of the show, and several of the actors actually spoke to the people they were portraying in order to inform their depictions.
Wang and Rubino made sure the cast included a mix of people who believed the Beatrice Six were guilty and people who thought they were innocent. As Rubino says, “That was part of asking, ‘Where are you? Who are you with? And how do we collaborate so that we can actually share something meaningful?’”
Some might argue that even with this chance for healing, it was too risky to stage a show whose very existence incensed so many people. As Wang herself concedes, “We didn't know what the outcome of the play would be.”
Fortunately, the performance had a profound impact on those who saw it. After the performance, the documentary shows relatives of Helen Wilson and Joe White (one of the Beatrice Six) gathering to speak about the pain they’ve all been carrying for decades. If nothing is quite mended, at least there's an attempt at compassion. “It was better than the best that I had hoped for,” Wang says. “Everyone was so receptive.”
Meanwhile, the final episode also includes a lengthy scene where Burt Searcey, the officer most responsible for putting the Beatrice Six in jail, refuses to accept his missteps. He argues directly with Wang and tells her she’s an irresponsible filmmaker.
His objections, coupled with a scene where several people in Helen Wilson’s family continue to support him, are a fascinating counterweight to the uplifting breakthroughs created by the play. Wang says, “I think if the film ended with a happy ending, and everybody reconciled and changed their minds... Well, that's beautiful, and I hoped for that. But that's not reality. I didn’t want the story to be like a fairy tale at the end. I wanted it to reflect more of the complexity of the reality. So that’s where the film ends: There are a group of people who have changed their minds, but some are still getting there.”
All six episodes of Mind Over Murder are now available for streaming on HBO Max.
Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.