The true-crime genre, as opposed to other types of documentaries, is inherently built on cynicism, from its reliance on unreliable talking heads to the unbelievable surprises it gleefully springs on the viewer. With their recent proliferation—some relying on the exploitation of their subject for sensationalist ends, others shoddily built on conspiracy theories—it’s difficult not to approach them with some jadedness. Leave it to acclaimed director Nanfu Wang to bring precision and rigor back to the genre. Her new six-part HBO true-crime docuseries “Mind Over Murder” is riveting and unrelenting.
And yet, Wang doesn’t build this sprawling docuseries like her previous works. The director has always shown a knack for interrogating Chinese political policies through her personal history toward incisive ends. In “Hooligan Sparrow” she used her childhood experience observing sex workers to discuss sexual assault. For “One Child Nation,” concerning the country’s one-child policy, she interviewed those directly affected, including her own parents, and examined her recent motherhood. “In the Same Breath” exposed the ways propaganda by China and the US altered the pandemic. But “Mind Over Murder” is a distinctly American story; her first of the kind since her road trip film “I Am Another You.”
Nestled in the quaint midwestern town of Beatrice (pronounced Be-Ah-trice) Nebraska, Wang renders “Mind Over Murder” through a Frederick Wiseman lens to tell the story of Helen Wilson’s murder. A forceful, investigative filmmaker, Wang never shirks away from parsing every detail. Her comprehensive style, particularly her uncanny ability to diagram how authoritative systems can act against vulnerable individuals, somehow moves with a sharper precision than ever in “Mind Over Murder.”
Amid its bundle of questions, certain facts remain consistent: In 1985, during a cold, winter night, someone entered Mrs. Wilson’s apartment, and overpowered her. Local police struggled to gain any leads: They turned to science—lab results concluded the killer had non-secretion type B blood—an FBI profiler, even a psychic. And still nothing. Retired police officer Burt Searcey took it upon himself to launch a private investigation. He eventually landed on six suspects: Joseph White, Thomas Winslow, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Debra Shelden, James Dean, and Kathy Gonzalez, all whom he believed worked together to rob Mrs. Wilson. Infamously known as the “Beatrice Six,” the sextet were convicted, and later exonerated 30 years later through DNA evidence. But questions surrounding their innocence remain, forever altering their lives, leaving the family of Mrs. Wilson embittered and in limbo, and fracturing a small town.
Wang’s docuseries runs on a few tracks: The first, accomplished in the first two episodes, reconstructs the crime and subsequent investigation by interviewing Searcey, a charismatic, media savvy good 'ol boy with a white mop-top haircut, who now owns a flower shop. The second, done in episodes three and four, primarily turns focus to the Beatrice Six, and features interviews with Thomas Winslow, Debra Shelden, James Dean, and Kathy Gonzalez talking about their trial and later exoneration. The final two installments discuss all of the shortcomings in the legal system that led to six innocent people being convicted. The end of each episode takes a step back to interview the actors from the local community theater, who are putting together a play about the crime. Wang balances these complex narrative components with grace, finding clarity even as this unbelievable story gains greater complexities.
Similar to “In the Same Breath,” the director takes a keen interest in the power of a narrative to explain tragedy and the theatrical ways authoritarian figures craft those narratives. Searcey's grainy interrogation videos with the Beatrice Six, for instance, look like a cheap 1980s low-budget cop movie. But in each video, Searcey's law enforcement title makes these naïve, vulnerable suspects to slowly confess and accuse the other. Nebraska’s power-drunk District Attorney and a quack police psychologist are only too happy to further take advantage of these desperate people. You immediately get the sense that the truth is only the version this trio wants to see, no matter the consequences.
That version of the legend, rendered into fact through the decades, still has a hold on this town. Wang, like Wiseman in “Monrovia, Indiana,” a documentary also interested in the civic structure of a tiny Midwest community, embedded herself among the people. She asks the local barber and other residents their thoughts on who’s innocent or guilty. They all speak frankly, a sign of the trust the filmmaker fostered. The same goes for the local theater company, whose play could easily backfire, yet are willing to meet on-camera with the people they’ll be portraying, and speak about the process of getting inside their respective characters.
“Mind Over Murder” doesn’t withhold any ghastly images. Crime scene photos show Mrs. Wilson’s frozen, deceased body; her death-gripped hand still clenched in a losing battle fought long ago; and the flaps of her hair poking through the blanket that suffocated her. There is also something inherently cinematic, for lack of a better term, about Mrs. Wilson’s building that Wang and cinematographer Jarred Alterman hit on in their evocative compositions. It’s the lone red edifice on a block of beige and gray buildings. And each establishing shot featuring it haunts more than the last. Wang leans into those horror elements, replete with a sinister score and one talking head comparing the area to a Stephen King story.
Wang, however, never veers toward exploitation. She doesn’t forget about Mrs. Wilson or uses her memory for cheap entertainment. She covers the backstory of each person in the Beatrice Six, such as speaking to White’s mom or the trauma faced by the accused women, and humanizes them in the process. Wang doesn’t track down conspiracy theories. And she knows when to insert herself; many of her follow-ups come sharp and quick. You can tell this is a director with a wellspring of experience needling totalitarian regimes and isn’t deterred.
The docuseries’ delicate editing is such that between revealing flashbacks, tasteful reenactments, and present-day interviews, you barely notice the steadiness Wang displays in intermingling the theater company into the broader narrative. Wang gives us the briefest of tastes, and for a while it’s unclear how exactly she’ll weave the play until the end. Wang isn’t solely interested in recalling the events. She’s transfixed on how art can make the viewer feel the truth. It happens when she shows Searcey a rough-cut of the docuseries, whereby he fiddles on his phone rather than watching. And it occurs during the theater troupe’s performance of the play, and the raw emotions it pulls.
Wang, an empathetic and perceptive filmmaker, isn’t afraid to get close to capture the intimacy and the tears. “Mind Over Murder” features plenty of shocking surprises, plenty of head-scratching admissions by its subjects, and a plethora of revelations that’ll leave you slacked-jaw and shaking your head in frustration at the injustice on display. Wang’s docuseries is vital, gripping, immersive, and profound. “Mind Over Murder” is everything a true-crime series should be.
Premiering tonight on HBO Max.