I want to preface this review by saying I am embarrassed. I was embarrassed for not knowing more about this documentary sooner and embarrassed by the film’s lack of attention from the media. Finding Kendrick Johnson sits at 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes with five critics’ reviews and no reviews from trades. Was the film not appropriately promoted? Was it ignored on purpose? What happened here?
This lack of attention is par for the course for Kendrick and his family. They’ve been dismissed and ignored, much like the documentary of Kendrick’s life and death. Directed by Jason Pollock, Finding Kendrick Johnson is less about visual style and more about providing insight into a case that is often forgotten.
Kendrick was an 18-year old student at Lowndes High School in Valdosta, GA. He was beloved by his family, well-liked at school, and participated in all sorts of sports. One day Kendrick didn’t come home from school. His parents, Kenneth and Jacqueline, thought maybe he got caught up in something and figured he would call at some point, but he never did. On January 11, 2013, the Johnson family was told that Kendrick had died. When they went to see his body at the crime scene, they discovered a gruesome sight: Kendrick’s bloodied body inside a rolled-up mat in the school gymnasium.
According to the authorities, Johnson fell into the mat while looking for his shoes, got stuck, and suffocated. It was common for some students to store their shoes in or around rolled-up gym mats at the school, but Johnson wasn’t wearing shoes when his body was found. Johnson’s family found this conclusion insufficient and conducted an independent autopsy with William R. Anderson at Forensic Dimensions in Heathrow, Florida. Anderson’s findings indicated blunt force trauma to the right neck and soft tissues, thus suggesting Kendrick’s death was not accidental.
To make matters worse, Anderson’s autopsy found that Johnson’s body was stuffed with newspaper. The funeral home that processed the body following the Georgia Bureau Investigation’s autopsy stated that they never received Johnson’s internal organs from the coroner and that the organs were “destroyed through natural process.” The Georgia Secretary of State’s office investigation found the funeral home did not follow “best practice” and that other material was “more acceptable than newspaper.” Though Kendrick’s body was treated negligently, investigators cleared the funeral home of any wrongdoing.
Brian and Branden Bell, sons of former FBI agent Rick Bell, were two people of interest in Kendrick’s case. They were apparently the last to see him before his death. The young man’s parents are convinced that the Bell boys know what happened to their son. The boys have been questioned repeatedly, but they deny knowing anything about Kendrick’s death and have not been formally charged with anything.
Narrated by legendary singer, actress, and activist Jennifer Lewis, the documentary shows this case in graphic detail from his family testimony and what they’ve experienced to pictures of Kendrick’s bloated body. Pollock makes a bold comparison of Kendrick’s case to that of Emmett Till. He was accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store while on vacation visiting family. For his “crime,” the 14-year-old was beaten, mutilated, shot, and thrown in the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi in 1955. Mamie Till Bradley, Till’s mother, put his brutalized corpse on display at the funeral so that America could see the consequence of racism in the Jim Crow. Eventually, his killers were tried and acquitted. Much like Emmett, Kendrick didn’t see justice served.
This film examines the level of racism within the American justice system through the lens of the Kendrick Johnson case. The film paints a picture with the evident lack of care on behalf of Georgia law enforcement, in addition to discovering a possible FBI coverup happening behind the scenes. The rabbit hole goes deep, and Pollock aims to get to the bottom of the mystery by doing some of his own investigating. Revelatory details are presented that could further aid the Johnson family. It’s clear Pollock picked a side and is doing as good a job or better at gathering evidence than those in charge of this case.
To this day, Kenneth and Jacqueline Johnson are still fighting for justice as their son’s case opens and closes more than a McDonald’s. Kendrick’s body isn’t allowed to rest as he’s been exhumed three times–but at what cost to the family? They’ve had enough of the injustice, Black people have had enough of the injustice, and they deserve better. While Finding Kendrick Johnson doesn’t have all the answers, I remember what’s done in the dark will come to light. For Kendrick’s family, let that be sooner rather than later.