Just over half a century ago, the Black Panthers created the “Free Huey!” campaign, taking advantage of media attention to mobilize support for the exoneration of Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton. At the time, Newton faced charges for allegedly killing a police officer. His initial conviction was overturned after a few years. But in the process of the campaign, "Free Huey!" transformed him into a figurehead of the radical Black left and its movement against police brutality and corruption. The parallels between Newton and Meek Mill, though never explicitly addressed, are clear in Free Meek, a new Amazon Prime docuseries out today. It presents Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill—his career spanning his entrapment in the criminal justice system—as a new figurehead for Black social justice. He’s a talented rapper and bona fide celebrity who, nevertheless, remains under the legal thumb of a case he caught when he was still a teen. Tracing Meek's rise from baby-faced teen to jet-setting rap icon, Free Meek presents a case to the inevitable disbelievers that the incarceration, parole, and probation systems can and do victimize any Black person, no matter how high their stars rise.
Much of the details of Meek’s case presented in the series won't be new to his legion of fans and supporters. In 2007, at the age of 18, a narcotics officer working in South Philly claimed to witness him selling crack. The following day officers arrested him, allegedly ramming the then-teen headfirst through his home's front door, and claimed Meek aimed a gun at them. Over a year later, Meek finally had his day in court, which resulted in seven guilty charges, two years in prison, and ten years of probation. Soon after, he released his debut mixtape Flamers and, the following year, Flamers 2. Since then Meek has lived between two worlds: lauded in one for his musical talents and surveilled and punished in the other for, among other things, being a young Black man in America.
Co-produced by Jay-Z's Roc Nation, Free Meek fills out this story through interviews and reenactments over the course of five episodes. Perhaps most importantly, it contextualizes his circumstances in the larger problem of mass incarceration and state supervision in the U.S. Much of the film's new revelations come in episodes four and five with the introduction of private investigators Tyler Maroney and Luke Brindle-Khym, whom Meek's camp hires to take a deep dive into the case. Looking into the evidence, as well as the backgrounds of Meek’s judge and arresting officers, they uncover how systematic corruption led to Meek’s unending legal saga.
What comes up often through Free Meek is Meek's unique talent and how it has, in some ways, taken him farther from his South Philly neighborhood than he could have dreamed. But some of Free Meek’s most jarring details center on state-sanctioned injustices that could happen, and do happen, to the millions of Black Americans trapped in the criminal justice system. In episodes two and three, we learn in detail about how probation sets up those on it to fail. On probation, Meek can be and is charged with violations for, among other things, posing with a water gun in an Instagram photo to popping a wheelie on a dirtbike.
There are also, however, those parts of Meek’s story that are exceptional by way of his celebrity. In one recording of Mill being pulled over and arrested after popping the wheelie, the arresting officer asks if he is "Meek Meekie Malik, Mill something whatever it is," before beginning to arrest him. The most eyebrow-raising detail, however, arrives when Meek alleges that his judge, Genece Brinkley, took him into her chambers after a hearing, asked him to remake a Boyz II Men song, and give her a shoutout on it. Brinkley denies those events ever took place.
If there's one villain in Free Meek, aside from the justice system itself, it's Brinkley, whom the investigators claim has a habit of bringing lawsuits against seemingly anyone. Throughout, Free Meek makes the case that Brinkley has a strange fixation on Meek and wielding power in his case. Except for in archival footage and photographs, Brinkley never appears in Free Meek except by way of Brinkley’s lawyer, Charles Peruto. In the series' gotcha moment, the filmmakers end an interview with Peruto, only to record him criticizing Brinkley’s judgment once he ostensibly believes the cameras and mics are off. "She looks fucking awful," we hear him say. Similar to Netflix’s When They See Us, which pulled the curtain back on prosecutor Linda Fairstein’s central role in sending five children to prison, Free Meek makes a clear case of who should be publicly held responsible for Meek’s never-ending carousel of arrests and court appearances, even as it argues the problem is bigger than one judge.
In recent years, alongside true-crime thriller fare, there’s been a seeming uptick in the number of eye-opening criminal justice documentaries and films, including 13th, The Central Park Five, and O.J.: Made in America, in addition to When They See Us. The mobilizing power of what Free Meek has to offer is best encapsulated by one of its periphery figures, Mill’s incredulous, white friend, Michael Rubin, a Philadelphia 76ers limited partner. As we learn in episode three, Rubin and Mill met an NBA All-Star game and became friendly after continuing to see each other at NBA events. Over the course of getting to know each other, Mill basically tells Rubin of the institutional racism he’s experienced. “I used to always tell him that’s bullshit, don’t act like a victim, you’re wrong. But I watched what happened in the courtroom that day,” Rubin says, referring to one hearing that sent Meek back behind bars. “Everything was just so wrong. That’s the two worlds I didn’t understand.” From then on, Rubin threw himself into using his connections and resources to help fight Mill’s case.
It’s easy for the general public to feel like they know their favorite celebrities. There’s a power in their visibility and financial advantages that seems inherently at odds with the powerlessness the criminal justice system imposes on poor and Black and brown people. It’s that contrast that undoubtedly struck Rubin and that will strike the many viewers unfamiliar with the probation system but intimately familiar with Meek and his songs. Free Meek puts faith in the hands of both viewers who know and love Meek as well as viewers who know and love someone in his same situation. It remains to be seen how much Meek as a social justice figurehead can accomplish for the many like him who don’t run in circles with the rich and powerful. Free Meek doesn’t make the path forward to justice as clear as it makes the flaws and devastation of the system. But as previous docuseries like Making a Murderer and Surviving R. Kelly have made clear, it has all the potential to make waves in court.