Watching “State of Alabama v Brittany Smith” on Netflix

The new Netflix documentary State of Alabama v Brittany Smith (2022) gives a glimpse into the difficult story of a north Alabama woman who pleaded guilty to the murder of a man who she says raped her in her own home. Brittany Smith’s life had already been hard when this ugly situation came about. She had been a pretty and smart young woman, had gotten married and had children, but had later become addicted to drugs. At the time of the alleged rape, she was trying to rebuild her life in order to have her children with her again. That all changed the night a male friend – a man who had sold her a dog – came to her house. According to Smith, she wanted him to leave but he wouldn’t. Because he is now dead, the only account to be told is hers, and she says that he went crazy and sexually assaulted her. Ultimately, she involved her brother, who went back to her house with them, and by the time the police were called, the alleged rapist had been shot dead.

State of Alabama v Brittany Smith deals heavily in narratives that force a person to ask, what do I believe, and why? For the police, Brittany Smith was woman with drug addiction in her past, which affected her credibility. Likewise, her decisions during and after the alleged assault, including after the shooting, make her stories hard to navigate or reconcile. After being assaulted, she called her mother instead of the police, she rode to the store to buy cigarettes with her attacker then returned home with him, and she changed her story about whether she or her brother shot the man. In the end, Smith was denied a favorable ruling in a “stand your ground” hearing – by a female judge – and was offered a plea deal that she accepted. Perhaps the only thing more confusing than Smith’s actions were those of the local prosecutors, who offered her a shorter sentence for murder than for manslaughter. 

The documentary, which is only forty minutes long, also deals in narratives about gender. We learn here that men are granted these “stand your ground” exceptions far more often than women. By contrast to men, women are more likely in these situations to be sent to prison for killing their attackers, whether through a conviction or a plea deal. This statistical difference seems to imply that we believe that men are defending themselves when they shoot an attacker, but that women are . . . committing a crime, which needs to be punished. The brief film asks us to wonder why.

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