The most dramatic moment any crime story can build to is when the killer breaks down and confesses, but in Nanfu Wang’s Mind Over Murder, the confessions are just the beginning. The six-part docuseries, the last episode of which hits HBO Max on Monday night, tells the story of the Beatrice Six, who were convicted of the 1985 rape and murder of 68-year-old Helen Wilson in the small town of Beatrice, Nebraska, only to be exonerated by DNA evidence in 2014. The trouble is, several of the six confessed to the crime during the initial investigation, and even after DNA testing conclusively proved the killer was someone else, some are still convinced they were present at Wilson’s death. How can people believe they did something they didn’t? And what would it take to convince a community, and a family, who spent almost 20 years believing the perpetrators of a vicious crime had been apprehended, to accept a different truth?
Mind Over Murder opens with auditions for a local theater production that features actors from the Beatrice area portraying figures from the case, and the play takes center stage in the show’s final episode—a re-enactment that is also an act of communal catharsis. Wang isn’t just out to uncover the truth, but to get people to believe it, a process that the series finds has much more to do with what makes for an emotionally involving story than what the facts may or may not show. It’s a fascinating wrap-up to a project that has pushed at the boundaries of what a true crime docuseries can do.
Wang spoke to Slate from her home in Montclair, New Jersey, about false confessions, social experiments, and the one family member who just couldn’t come around. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Sam Adams: Your interest in the Beatrice Six started with a 2017 New Yorker article by Rachel Aviv, called “Remembering the Murder You Didn’t Commit”—which, like most New Yorker articles, is pretty thorough. What made you feel like you had more to add to the story, particularly as a documentary filmmaker?
Nanfu Wang: First, the title really attracted me because I was already fascinated by false memory. Two years after we finished shooting my first movie, Hooligan Sparrow [a documentary about a Chinese activist], I showed the main character, Ye Haiyan, the film. And as we were watching, she remembered her life experience as the film’s version, even when I pointed out that the film has been edited and there are things missing. So it was that experience that really made me think a lot about how fallible, malleable our memory is. The article itself was striking because it was another level to think that somebody could have memory of committing a murder, something so serious, not like I forgot whether I had a conversation or I forgot whether I had breakfast the other day.
The article also mentioned how many people in the community still had that false belief. If this is the case, what does that say about our society? Mind Over Murder is a social experiment to understand what it would take to change people’s minds. That was the unknown to me. Is it possible to convince the Wilson family, the people who firmly believed that the Six were guilty? Is it possible to challenge them to think differently, or to even consider the possibility, and to examine and explore the alternative? And if so, what would it take? If it’s not DNA, if it’s not evidence, if it’s not facts, then what could we do as a society?
Realizing that your movies have the ability to, intentionally or not, rewrite people’s memories of their own lives—that seems like a kind of terrifying discovery.
It is. I was fascinated, but also horrified, because I didn’t know that, as a storyteller, as a filmmaker, I had such tremendous power to convince somebody of their own memory, their own narrative. And that’s terrifying, because I could convince the main person whose own story and the record of what happened in 2013 with her—her life—is no longer is remembered by anyone else except for me, except for what has been documented in the raw footage. And if she lost that memory, the whole world collectively is going to recognize the film as the record of the true events. It wasn’t consequential in any significant way, the film hasn’t distorted anything, it’s just clarity, but I was very aware that if anyone did this with authority and power, then you could do something seriously consequential. You could manipulate events and not only revise individual memories, but revise the collective of memory, which is how history is written and which defines a nation’s identity.
The way you structure Mind Over Murder falls loosely into three acts, two episodes apiece: First you essentially lay out the original theory of how the Beatrice Six “did it,” and by the end of Episode 4, we know who the real killer is, which is where most true crime series stop. The remaining two hours are devoted to: Now that we know the truth, how do you get people to believe it?
We wanted people to experience it at the beginning, in 1989, from the law enforcement officers’ point of view, so that we understood where they came from, how they arrived at their decision. And then, as the story shifts, we experience it as the point of view of the Six, and mostly the one of them who still wanted, for many, many years, wanted to appeal. And after that is the point of view of the team, the task force of the re-investigation, and then the civil trial, suing law enforcement in the county.
One thing that was always clear to me was I wanted the series to announce the exoneration at the very beginning, to put what most interested me, which is there was an exoneration but there are still people who believed that they were guilty, [up front]. We did another restructure [that started the series] without announcing [the exoneration], but I didn’t feel like it really reflected what was the most interesting about the story that attracted me.
One way in which you break pretty forcefully from the true crime template is by incorporating the theater production, which takes the place of using re-enactments. And that was something you helped initiate rather than just documenting. Why was that an important part of the process for you?
As I mentioned, one of the most unknown and intriguing questions to me was what it would take to change people’s minds—and is that possible? If all of those years, all of this reporting and investigation, couldn’t really convince people the narrative that is different from what they always believed, then maybe it takes empathy. It takes having people truly experience the story in other people’s shoes, to really put them in the situation, in the scenario, for them to reconsider. For example, a lot of people would say, “I would never confess to something I didn’t do, no matter what kind of threats that I got.” But that is not true. And you would only know it’s not true if you truly experienced that.
Initially, when I thought about it, I was like, Okay, we can do it with a high school theater program. But quickly, that idea didn’t work out because I realized the age group wouldn’t be appropriate. Luckily, they have a community theater in this small town. The next step was to convince them to collaborate. That was a huge conversation because they knew how controversial the topic is, and they were afraid that it was going to generate a lot of repercussion and backlash towards the theater. Then, once the theater was on board, then we advertised and promoted it to the community, and that raised a lot of questions. Every time this case is in public, it generates another wave of debate and people are very heated on both sides.
Eventually, people signed up and came to the audition. And it was an unconventional audition. Usually it takes 15 minutes, but we were interviewing each of them for about an hour, to understand who they are and what they think and what their connection to this community, to this case, is—but also to give them an opportunity to ask me questions so I can explain why I wanted to do it this way and to talk through any concerns that they might have so they would feel comfortable participating. We eventually cast 16 people. And I intentionally cast people who believed that the Six were guilty, because we wanted to see, over the course of rehearsal, would they go through a transformation? Would they, after being presented the material and being given the opportunity to go through it and to step into a role of somebody that they might have prejudice against, would they think differently?
And it happened. There were several people who came into the audition believing in one way, and gradually through the rehearsal started to question themselves.
You mentioned the idea of empathy, and one of the places where that’s so key to Mind Over Murder is with the family of Helen Wilson. It’s easy to describe this as a series about the Beatrice Six, but Helen Wilson’s family members were victimized by this process as well. When you started making the series, many of them still believed the Six were guilty, or at least involved in Helen Wilson’s death somehow. How did you gain their trust? I can imagine they’d have reservations about being involved in a project that might sympathetically treat the people they believe murdered their relative, and their presence is so important to the series.
Their involvement is absolutely important because we’re telling a story about their grandmother. And if you don’t have the family’s permission or have them involved, it will be very incomplete. I said the same thing to them as to the Beatrice Six, the lawyers, the original police officers—that I wanted to tell the story from the people who were directly involved, and I wanted to know their experience and the things that they’ve witnessed. I said, Your point of view is extremely important and crucial to make the story right, to make the final presentation truthful, because if it’s missing yours, it would be incomplete. With the family, it took a long series of conversations before sitting down on camera. It was clear very quickly how betrayed they felt by the media, because they felt the media had always been reporting on the Beatrice Six, and gave very little room and space for their own story, especially their belief the Six were guilty. So I went to them, I said, “I want to tell story about your Grandma and the truth of what happened to her. And, of course, I’m still learning. My plan is to talk to everyone and then to find out exactly what happened. I know that you feel that your story hasn’t been covered, and your point of view will be represented here.”
They later told me one moment that made them really trust me. Before we started filming, they played me a cassette tape of Helen Wilson. It was the first time I heard her voice, which is in Episode 1, when she was singing, when she was reading the poem. There was one moment when she was reading the poem and singing that somehow really touched me. I cried, and I was feeling embarrassed that I was crying, so I tried to quickly wipe off my tears. But I think one of them or some of them noticed or saw it. And then they didn’t tell me until much later, but it was at that moment that they felt that I truly invested or emotionally resonated with them.
That leaves us with Burt Searcy, the investigator who is responsible for the Beatrice Six’s false confessions. He’s the only major figure from their convictions who agreed to talk to you, but it’s not clear that he’s accepted he did anything wrong. At the beginning of Episode 6 you play him a rough cut of the series so far, and he demonstrably disengages with it, talking over it or playing around on his cell phone. It’s only after you’ve finished your last interview and the main camera is turned off that he starts to crack, and even then you have to press him pretty hard—to the extent that you show up on camera for the first time in the series. What is that moment about for you?
It’s a very complex moment. I had shown him the rough cut of the last six episodes with the goal of seeing, if he’s presented with nuanced storytelling and with all the points of view of the Six, some of the very personal stories he never was aware of—would that be enough to make him see something different, to admit that he had made a mistake? It didn’t really happen. I felt like he was either on the verge, or just being very reluctant or resistant to open it up and to admit.
The performance of the play had changed a lot of people, but Burt didn’t go to the play. [That last interview] was one of the final moments, during that trip. I was leaving the next day or something. And I was relentless, I feel, in a way. I wanted to believe that humans are inherently changeable and good. And so I wanted to go to him, and just give him another chance; also, I was unwilling to give up. The conversation played, instead of an interview, more of an actual conversation and argument between the two of us.
I think there were a few moments that he was close to admitting, not that he was wrong, but that the Six were innocent. But it was also not very clear that he was saying that. The moment that really was actually surprising to me was his wife’s attitude. It’s not in the cut, I think, but his wife cried. And then I said, “Cindy, why are you crying?” And Burt was like, “Because you are trying to push us to admit that we were guilty.” And I said, “I’m not sure that’s true. I wanted to hear from Cindy herself.” And Cindy was like, “No, I was crying because I feel relieved that you finally said it and I want you to say it from your heart.”
That was a surprising moment because Cindy, the whole time up until that moment, always said that she believed that she thought her husband was doing the right thing, and she has always shown tremendous support to his point of view. And a lot of women are like that. [Helen Wilson’s grandson] Bob Houseman’s wife expressed that she actually always disagreed with him [about the Beatrice Six being guilty], but she never expressed to her disagreement because she didn’t want to be the one who had the different voice. I felt Cindy is the same.
You get the feeling their wives have been wait 10 or 20 years for an opening to talk about it.
Exactly. And then the one line that [Wilson’s grandson] Shane said towards the end … I was hoping that there would be a happy, fully resolved ending, that everybody had a reconciliation and had come to terms with the truth, but when Shane, in the final, final interview, still said, “Well, I think they might have known Bruce Allen Smith [Wilson’s real killer].” That was a shocking moment. How could you accept that they were innocent but at the same time, still have that doubt? And he said, “Our brains are not flipping the switch that you can change overnight.” To me, that was a more realistic version to end the story on, even if it’s unsatisfying that not everybody changed.
Shane comes very close to saying outright that he knows the Beatrice Six have to be innocent, but he has too much invested in their guilt, so he’s come up with this unlikely compromise as a way of easing himself into the truth.
It ties into what I think Mind Over Murder is really thoughtful about, which is, on a fundamental level, what is documentary best at? If you just want the facts laid out in front of you, you’d be better off reading. It’s harnessing facts towards story, and story, not fact, is ultimately what makes us believe. Shane can’t just let go of the idea that the Six are guilty because it’s become part of who he is.
I think really the process of making the series and the play gave me a lot of hope in the power of art and the power of storytelling. Before this moment, because of everything happening in the world, the pandemic and all sorts of things, seeing the direction where our society is going, I always have felt more and more pessimistic. But experiencing this, I was like, it’s interesting that what really can change people or potentially change the society is connection, and storytelling does have a power, I think, to connect to people.