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—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 Wilson, 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.