In 1993, Danielle Metz, a first-time nonviolent offender, was sentenced to triple-life plus twenty years. In 2016, she was granted clemency by the Obama Administration. Nailah Jefferson, a storyteller and documentarian, has now made the film “Commuted,” which chronicles Danielle’s life post-prison.
I was fortunate to speak with Nailah about this moving film, which has its world premiere at the New Orleans Film Festival tonight. Danielle takes back her narrative and it’s a beautiful thing to witness. I learned so much from this film and am empowered to not waste my free days on this earth. A woman like Danielle shows you that the fight is worth it, and that we must keep moving forward. Imagination and heart can take you a long way.
How did you come to this project, and how did you meet Danielle Metz?
Danielle and I were actually introduced through our pastor, Bishop Lester Love. When she came home in 2016, I remember sitting in church and it was this big thing. He was telling her story and said that she was sentenced to triple life. Then Danielle came out and told her story. It was a profound moment because her family members were there, and I just remember when I was hearing her story, I was crying.
Many months later, the pastor called me and asked if I knew Danielle. I said, “I know that name,” but I couldn’t completely recall. He said, “She has a story, and you are a storyteller, so you should come together.” At the next service, I met her, and we started a conversation, which has now gone on for six years, and what has resulted from it is the film, “Commuted.”
I love how you pieced the film together. A very specific piece that really anchored the film for me were the recurring shots of the ceiling fan. That seemed so significant because of what it meant to Danielle and how opening her eyes to that fan every morning really centered her. Can you talk about the process of assembling this documentary?
One thing that we wanted to get across was this was not a true crime story. We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to take people on the immersive journey of a woman who had just gotten out of prison, and show what that meant and felt like after an extensive sentence.
I thought that this journey isn’t one that we see enough, and it was one that we wanted to bring forth so that people were able to relate and connect to Danielle more as a human being, rather then just a headline. So that’s what we did. We brought in things like the ceiling fan because we took our cues from her. Even in the beginning, when she talks about the ride to prison, she says that all she saw was a desert. Being a woman from New Orleans, she had never seen the desert. So was it actually the desert, or was it just deserted? And what else does that mean? Was it actually a desert, or did she feel an overwhelming sense of loneliness, and a kind of desperation, and she couldn’t place where she was? We felt and thought that it was important to be less literal, and really just live into Daniele’s interpretation of what was going on in her life.
I feel that’s also what got her out of prison. Even when she was not yet free, she was able to use her mind and her imagination to kind of lean on that hope, and drive her towards continuing to fight. How do you fight triple life? I wouldn’t even know where to start, and I think it started in her head and in her heart to see something beyond the walls that she was trapped in.
What is your mission in your work and what drives your passion in the work?
I think anyone that I profile in a film usually has something in them that maybe I wish I had or I find incredibly inspiring. With Danielle, again, I just go back to, ‘How did she keep her spirit going? How did she raise two children who beat the statistics and did’t end up in prison or get in trouble?’ And yes, she wasn’t physically there for everything, but I think that’s quite a feat for her and her partner to have life sentences and somehow they’re still able to parent in a way where their children didn’t get in trouble. And then Danielle comes home and you see what she becomes. Her fight was worth it. Look at all she has accomplished. It’s only been seven years since she’s been home. It’s so inspirational.
But then again, I think telling these stories and just giving people who don’t have a voice a platform is really powerful. Danielle wanted to take back the narrative that had already been painted of her through the trial and the media. She wanted the chance to right her wrongs and also tell people who she really is, not what they said about her. Through this narrative, we also wanted to shine a light on the extreme injustices that were done to her. Yes she did wrong things, but did she deserve that amount of time? My goodness.
One big thing that we talk about in the documentary community is about being non-extractive. I think for a long time, particularly with telling Black stories, storytellers have leaned into the trauma, and have not necessarily left the communities in a better space than when they got there. Some of these documentarians just extract information so they can build their careers to be successful. I don’t want to do that in any form with the people’s stories I’m telling, especially people who have been through traumatic experiences.
So we’ve talked about how this film can be beneficial to the community’s story we’re telling. That doesn’t mean sugar coating things, and that doesn’t mean being misleading in the storytelling. But it does mean you walking away feeling empowered, and perhaps this body of work can help you go on and accomplish whatever you want to do. And with Danielle, that is impact work with getting more women out of prison, and inspiring women who are still in prison to continue the fight. I think that’s what this story does.
I agree! What do you hope people see in your film?
I hope that they see a remarkable woman, and they see a loving family. Yes, they’ve gone through their stuff, but I think that their commitment to one another as a family says a lot, because it’s really tough. And I hope that they see that we need to change these laws, and that there are still women in prison that we need to continue to advocate for. We have the ability to make change, we’re not just at a loss. Our hands are not tied, we have the power to make sure that these women are centered and they make it back home.
Do you have any kind of call to action, or steps people can take to support these women?
I think that we can lean on Biden more heavily. He has the tools to commute these sentences. Like Danielle said, it’s just a stroke of a pen. He doesn’t have to go through anyone else. He totally has the autonomy to do this. I think that’s the most direct and easiest step. You can also do things like support the people who are doing the advocacy work, like the The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls that Danielle works for. You can also support CAN-DO, which is Amy Ralston Povah’s organization.
In addition to this film you can see Nailah Jefferson’s doc “Donyale Luna: Supermodel” on HBO and Max. The film is about the first Black supermodel, who was the first Black model to featured on the covers of British Vogue and Harper’s BAZAAR. You can also see her short film “Descended from the Promised Land: The Legacy of Black Wall Street” now on the Black Public Media YouTube channel about the descendants of Black Wall Street.