In the third season of You, which is one of Netflix’s most zeitgeisty shows, there’s an episode titled “Missing White Woman Syndrome.” The phrase was coined in 2004 by the late journalist and PBS NewsHour host Gwen Ifill while she was a White House correspondent. It describes the rabid way that the media and law enforcement pursue cases of missing white women as a direct contrast to their languor when Black people go missing.
“If there’s a missing white woman, we’re gonna cover that every day,” Ifill explained at the UNITY: Journalists of Color conference. It’s a sign of changing, possibly progressing, times that the phrase has entered the pop culture lexicon.
Another sign is the release of a new HBO documentary targeting this disparity: Black and Missing.
The four-part series, produced by journalist Soledad O’Brien and Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Geeta Gandbhir (I Am Evidence), and directed by Gandbhir, Nadia Hallgren, Samantha Knowles, and Yoruba Richen, is a moving portrait of an organization that doesn’t want to exist but has to.
The Black and Missing Foundation is a non-profit dedicated to bringing awareness and resources to cases involving missing persons of color. The organization was founded by Derrica Wilson and Natalie Wilson, sisters-in-law who are the documentary’s main subjects, and it acts as a stopgap for what Derrica calls “a silent epidemic.”
According to the research, cases involving missing Black Americans go unresolved four times longer than missing white Americans. The documentary posits that the media plays a large role in this poor case resolution rate.
The face cases for missing persons are almost always white women. Most Americans, regardless of their interest level in true crime, have seen the faces or heard the names of Natalee Holloway and Laci Peterson because the disappearances of these women were treated like national emergencies. Most recently, the case of the missing 22-year-old influencer Gabby Petito electrified both national and international news, and social media users even began impassioned citizen investigations to assist in locating her.
By contrast, Natalie Wilson remarks in the first episode, “If you ask anyone to name three missing African Americans, I guarantee you they will come up short.”
In its early days, Natalie and Derrica intended to use the Black and Missing Foundation to spread awareness of missing persons of color, but after doing the work for a bit they realized they would actually need to be active in the search and rescue process to get the results they wanted.
Through at-home footage, the documentary shows all the ways the organization picks up the slack for the police. Daily activities include following up with victims’ families, database management, drafting press releases, passing out fliers, and interviewing potential witnesses.
While Natalie covers the PR angle, Derrica has a different skill set. She’s a former law enforcement officer who says that in the six months she spent at the police academy, she was assigned less than two hours of work on missing person cases.
In the documentary, we hear from current and former cops, a cold-case detective, a former FBI victim specialist, and a former assistant US attorney, among other talking heads. While some of them aid the fight, the series shows us that they are part of a broken system.
Using simple but effective contrast, Black and Missing exposes the difference between the tireless advocacy of citizens like Derrica and Natalie and the clumsy, borderline negligent work of the police assigned to investigate missing persons of color. The goal of the documentary is to spread awareness of this problem, but if its goal is to prove to non-believers that there even is a problem, the series does that too.
The documentary has some unnecessary flourishes; no story really benefits from staging a recreation of a received text message. But it is largely successful. This is due to a combination of unimpeachable data — findings from the National Crime Information Center show that in 2020 Black people accounted for nearly a third of the country’s missing person cases despite only making up roughly 12 percent of the US population — and heartrending testimonials.
In Black and Missing, we meet a mother who wears a custom t-shirt emblazoned with her daughter’s face and the date she was last seen and the brother of a missing woman who channels his grief into victim advocacy. We also overhear frustrated calls from family members hitting walls with their loved ones’ cases and even see how the organization’s co-founders’ own families have been impacted by the way police bias and structural inequality can disappear people from their lives.
Though the documentary covers both missing children and missing adults, its strongest case is made in the coverage of missing Black children. This is not because missing children are more important than missing adults but because this section gets at the heart of the issue of the series.
Natalie Wilson explains that Black children are disproportionately labeled runaways by law enforcement, and this label is important because amber alerts are not sent out for runaways. Among the talking heads brought on to discuss this issue is Vince Warren, Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who adds vital historical context to the relationship between law enforcement and the Black community dating back to the centuries-old practice of capturing runaway slaves.
Per Warren, labeling a Black child a runaway is practically a secret police code that tells officers they don’t have to put effort into a case. The theory holds that white children who get amber alerts are seen as victims whereas Black children who get labeled runaways are seen as criminals or delinquents.
“It’s worth considering whether there is actually such a thing as a Black child in terms of the way society sees us,” Warren says.
His statement may seem hyperbolic, but the documentary doesn’t have to work too hard to prove him right. By coupling data with real-world evidence like the murder of 12-year-old Tamir Rice and even dashcam footage of a young Black girl being pepper-sprayed and assaulted by cops, Black and Missing easily confirms that the world is stacked against Black children.
This helps establish that Black and Missing isn’t a social-issue documentary but a structural-issue documentary. Over the course of four episodes, each an hour-long, the series tries to unpack all the various structures — the carceral state, our country’s biased law enforcement system, ingrained sexism — that work in concert to delay all manner of justice for Black people, including leaving them missing longer than their white counterparts.
When Gabby Petito’s case was making headlines, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland used the opportunity to point out the lack of news coverage for missing Native American girls and women. In Black and Missing, Natalie Wilson says the first version of the Black and Missing Foundation’s website was modeled after that of America’s Most Wanted (incidentally — that show’s creator/host, John Walsh, is a talking head in the documentary). She says it’s because she’s a fan of the show, but there is also a strange irony that the missing persons of color they are working to recover are neglected as if they are America’s most unwanted.
The organization often adds the hashtag #HelpUsFindUs to press releases or to t-shirts in order to emphasize its mission. By laying out Derrica and Natalie Wilson’s work like this, Black and Missing levels a well-founded and damning accusation at the system. The documentary asks, just as the co-founders themselves rhetorically inquire in the series: “If not us, who?”
Black and Missing premieres on HBO and HBO Max on November 23rd.
Related Topics: documentaries