Review: ‘Finding Kendrick Johnson,’ starring Kenneth Johnson Sr., Jackie Johnson, Kenyatta Johnson, Lydia Tooley Whitlock, Malik Austin, Mitch Credle and William Anderson

August 30, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kendrick Johnson in “Finding Kendrick Johnson” (Photo courtesy of Kendrick Johnson Family/Gravitas Ventures)

Finding Kendrick Johnson”

Directed by Jason Pollock

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Valdosta, Georgia, the true crime documentary “Finding Kendrick Johnson” features a predominantly African American group of people representing the working-class and middle-class who are connected in some way the case of Kendrick Johnson, a 17-year-old student from Valdosta who died a suspicious death in his high school gym in 2013.

Culture Clash: Several people in the documentary say that Johnson was murdered due to racism and jealousy, and the crime was covered up because the main person of interest is the son of a white man who was an FBI agent at the time of Johnson’s death.

Culture Audience: “Finding Kendrick Johnson” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries investigating mysteries that involve civil rights issues and racial injustice.

Kenneth Johnson Sr. and Jackie Johnson in “Finding Kendrick Johnson” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

In the never-ending flow of true crime documentaries that are being made and released, “Finding Kendrick Johnson” has an emotional resonance that might stay with viewers longer than most movies about unsolved mysteries. This film is clear from the beginning about its agenda of taking the side of the victim’s family. The purpose of the movie, according to an announcement early on in the film, is to bring more awareness and present new facts in the baffling death case of Kendrick Johnson, so that people can make up their own minds.

He was a lively and beloved 17-year-old who was a student at Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Georgia. In 2013, his bloodied body was found stuffed in a gym mat in a school gym, and he is believed to have died the day before while classes were in session. His death was initially ruled as an accident, but his family has been fighting to have the death ruling changed to homicide and for justice to be served. And they think they know who committed the alleged crime.

This documentary (which is narrated by actress Jenifer Lewis, one of the movie’s executive producers) does a very good job of putting the case in the context of America’s very shameful history of racism, since many people believe that Johnson’s death and how authorities mishandled the investigation have a lot to do with racism against African Americans. Sensitive viewers should be warned: The documentary has several nauseating photos of murdered people (including Emmett Till) after they were lynched or beaten to death. There are also very graphic photos of Johnson’s dead body, including his bloodied and swollen face.

Directed by Jason Pollock, “Finding Kendrick Johnson” also uncovers video surveillance footage that seems to damage the credibility of former Lowndes High School student Brian Bell, who has been named repeatedly as someone who might know more about Johnson’s death than he’s willing to admit. Bell, who has not been named as a suspect, has maintained that he was in a classroom at the time of the death and that he never saw Johnson that day. However, surveillance video footage that was uncovered by filmmaker Pollock and his team—and revealed to the public for the first time in this documentary—shows Bell walking less than two feet behind Johnson in a school hallway on the day that Johnson died.

What exactly happened in that gym on January 10, 2013? Everyone agrees that’s when and where Johnson died. What people don’t agree on is how he died. Was it an accident or was it murder? And if it was murder, who committed the crime? Because this case has gotten a lot of media coverage, most of “Finding Kendrick Johnson” might not be surprising to people who already know a lot of the facts related to the case.

However, the filmmakers seem determined to do more than rehash previous news reports and joined in the family’s quest to uncover more evidence to re-open the case. (The outcome of all this hard work is revealed in the movie’s epilogue.) Several family members are interviewed, such as Kenneth Johnson Sr. (Kendrick’s father), Jackie Johnson (Kendrick’s mother), Kenyatta Johnson (Kendrick’s older sister), Lydia Tooley Whitlock (Kendrick’s aunt) and Barbara English (Kendrick’s grandmother).

They all describe Kendrick as loving, playful, and the type of person who was the most likely in the family to cheer someone up when they were feeling down. He was a well-liked student who played on the school’s basketball team. Kendrick’s two other siblings—Kenneth Johnson Jr. and Kenya Johnson —are not interviewed for the documentary. Kenneth Sr. (a truck driver) and Jackie have lived in Valdosta their entire lives, as have their children.

Kendrick’s parents both say that when Kendrick didn’t come home on the night of January 10, 2013, they instinctively knew by midnight that he was dead. His body was found by a female student in the school gym on January 11, 2013, at about 10:30 a.m. Many people immediately suspected foul play because his body was upside down in a rolled-up gym mat that was about 6 feet tall. Blood was near his head, and his face had significant bruising, as if he had been in a recent fight. There were also recent cuts on his hands that looked like fight injuries.

There were three pairs of athletic shoes near the body that could have had crucial clues, but some people in the documentary believe that the shoes were evidence that was either tampered with or not properly tested. According to the photos taken by investigators, the first pair of shoes were black with orange laces and with mysterious red splotches that looks a lot like blood. The owner of these shoes has not been identified, and investigators will only say that the red splotches were not blood.

The other two pairs of shoes belonged to Kendrick: one pair was white, and these shoes were located beside his body, inside the gym mat. The other pair was black, and these black shoes were identified as the ones that Kendrick would wear for his everyday activities, not his gym activities. After his body was found, the documentary states that the black shoes look liked they had been meticulously cleaned—too pristine for anyone who was wearing those shoes on a regular basis and who was unlikely to wash the shoes at school that day.

Investigators initially presented a theory that Kendrick accidentally died while trying to reach for his white athletic shoes in the center hole of the rolled-up the gym mat, and he accidentally go stuck and suffocated to death. It was common for people to use different shoes inside the gym and outside the gym. Those who did use different shoes often had a habit inside the gym of placing the shoes they weren’t using underneath rolled-up gym mats that were stacked vertically.

Therefore, people who believe that Kendrick died from foul play say that it doesn’t make sense that he would try to get his gym shoes by crawling through the center of a rolled-up gym mat when all he would have to do is move the gym mat to retrieve the shoes. Kendrick was 5’10” and the rolled-up gym mat he was found in was about 6 feet tall. His shoulders were about 19 inches wide, while the rolled-up gym mat his body was found in had a center hole that was 14 inches wide.

Nevertheless, the initial ruling by investigators was that Kendrick accidentally died by squeezing himself into the center of the gym mat and suffocating to death. Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office investigator Stryde Jones is seen in archival news footage being one of the chief people who was adamant in stating that Kendrick’s death was an accident. And what about the bruises on Kendrick’s face and the blood near his head? The ruling was that those injuries could have happened while Kendrick was stuck and trying frantically to get out from inside the gym mat. Does that make sense to you?

The documentary also mentions there were are also signs that come crucial evidence was tampered with or went missing:

  • Time-stamped video surveillance footage inside the school from 12:04 p.m. to 1:09 p.m. on January 10, 2013—which is widely believed to be the time frame in which Kendrick died—has gone missing or is unaccounted for, according to several people interviewed in the movie. The documentary includes surveillance footage that is available, including the last images of Kendrick alive in the school.
  • A gray hooded sweatshirt with blood on it was found near Kendrick’s body, but Kendrick did not own the sweatshirt, and no one has claimed ownership of it. The documentary states that this sweatshirt has not been tested for DNA.
  • The blood on the gym walls was tested and did not match Kendrick’s blood. According to investigators, the blood belongs to another person whom they say they have not been able to identify.
  • Kendrick’s organs were removed (which is standard procedure in an autopsy), but somehow the organs ended up missing. The medical examiner’s office, police crime lab and the funeral home that were in contact with Kendrick’s body will not take responsibility for the missing organs. Kendrick’s body was exhumed twice to be re-examined. During the first re-examination, newspaper shreddings were found where Kendrick’s organs should have been.

The Johnson family hired an independent investigator named Dr. William “Bill” Anderson, whose specialty is forensic autopsies and clinical pathology. Because Dr. Anderson was not the person who did the first autopsy of Kendrick’s body, he had to rely on autopsy photos and the official medical report to try to make some sense of the initial analysis of the organs that have gone missing. Dr. Anderson says in the documentary, “One of the things that immediately stuck out was the findings that the lungs had no fluid.” Dr. Anderson adds that lungs filled with fluid is a telltale sign of asphyxia, so he thinks it’s highly unlikely that Kendrick died from suffocation.

What really happened? Several people, including Kendrick’s family members and his good friend/schoolmate Malik Austin, say in the documentary that they believe that Kendrick was killed during a fight, probably with more than one person. At the top of their suspect list is Bell, who had previously lost a fight that he started with Kendrick on a school bus. Austin was one of several people who witnessed this altercation on the school bus. He says that Bell was the one who instigated it, like a “bully.” Kendrick only fought back in self-defense, and he easily won the fight.

But to say that Bell had a motive isn’t evidence. Bell, who was a star on the Lowndes High School football team at the time, has always maintained that he had nothing to do with Kendrick’s death. One of the flaws in the documentary is how it doesn’t say either way if there’s proof that Bell was truthful in his alibi that he was in a classroom during the time that Kendrick died. Where are the witnesses who could corroborate that alibi if it’s true? If the alibi isn’t true, and he snuck out of class during the time of Kendrick’s death, there’s no surveillance footage available.

Brian Bell’s father, Rick Bell, was an influential FBI agent at the time of Kendrick’s death. People who believe that Kendrick was murdered say that it’s been covered up by a vast conspiracy because of Rick Bell’s connections. There’s also been speculation that if Brian Bell committed the murder, then he had an accomplice because Brian Bell allegedly knew he wouldn’t be able to fight Kendrick on his own.

The documentary presents some hearsay evidence from an unidentified female witness (who was underage at the time, so her identity is protected), who gave a statement back in 2013 that she heard from a female friend that Kendrick had slept with her, even though this female friend was dating another guy whose father worked for the FBI. According to what this unidentified hearsay witness heard, the jealous boyfriend, who knew about the infidelity, admitted to his girlfriend that he got revenge on Kendrick by killing him, with help from a male friend who had recently transferred back to Lowndes High School.

This hearsay statement, which would not be admissible in court, goes on to mention that the brother of the jealous boyfriend knew about the murder and didn’t feel comfortable helping his brother cover it up. Brian Bell has a brother named Branden Bell, who has also publicly denied anything do with Kendrick’s death and stated that his alibi was that he wasn’t even at the school when Kendrick died.

The documentary has archival news footage of Brian and Branden Bell proclaiming that they had nothing to do with Kendrick’s death. It’s not stated in the documentary if the filmmakers reached out to Brian, Branden and/or Rick Bell (who has since resigned from the FBI) to get any comments or interviews. Even if the filmmakers did reach out to the Bell family, it’s unlikely that anyone in the Bell family would want to participate in the documentary, which is admittedly biased in favor of the Johnson family.

The documentary also does not mention the name of the “transfer student” who was an alleged “accomplice” in Kendrick’s death. And the name of the cheating girlfriend isn’t mentioned either. Those are gaps in the documentary that needed filling in, even if to state whether or not the filmmakers tried to contact these possible witnesses to get comments or interviews. There’s a brief caption in the documentary that all people alleged to be involved in Kendrick’s death have denied any involvement.

The Johnson family and their supporters (including activist Stephanie Martin) say in the documentary that they had hope that U.S. attorney Michael Moore (not to be confused with filmmaker Michael Moore) would make progress when he announced that he was re-opening the case because there was too much doubt that Kendrick’s death was accidental. However, the hope turned to disappointment when Moore abruptly resigned as U.S. attorney in 2015, and he went to work for a private law firm. Jackie Johnson doesn’t mince words when she says why she thinks that Moore quit as U.S. attorney: “Those people scared him out of his job.”

Kendrick’s case then took a highly unusual turn, when seven judges recused themselves to review the case, and the case was moved all the way from Georgia to Ohio. Keep in mind that Kendrick’s death took place in Valdosta, Georgia, where Kendrick, his siblings and parents have lived their entire lives. Atlanta-based civil rights activist Tyrone Brooks says in the documentary that “it was mind-boggling” that the case was moved to a state thousands of miles away from Georgia, when Kendrick and the scene of his death have nothing do with Ohio.

Mitch Credle, a Washington, D.C.-based homicide detective who investigated the case for the U.S. attorney’s office, sums up why he thinks there are too many suspicious signs that point to a cover-up: “What made me think that everything was a cover-up was—for me, as an experienced homicide detective—that first meeting with the medical examiner. Body parts were missing. Evidence was missing. That’s another red flag.”

Later in the documentary, a stunned Credle is shown for the first time a still frame from the video surveillance footage that shows Brian Bell walking close behind Kendrick Johnson in a school hallway on the day that Kendrick died—a direct contradiction to Brian Bell’s longstanding claim that he never even saw Kendrick that day. Is he lying or his memory faulty? Credle expresses shock and dismay that he never saw this surveillance footage before it was brought to his attention by the documentary team. And this longtime homicide detective thinks that this footage severely damages Brian Bell’s credibility in relation to this case.

Although “Finding Kendrick Johnson” is about this particular case, the documentary also wants viewers to look at the bigger picture of how many other people—particularly black people—have experienced racial injustice in a U.S. system of law enforcement that disproportionately treats black people worse than other races. The documentary asks the question that people who aren’t naïve know the answer to: If Kendrick Johnson had been white, and if a black schoolmate had been rumored to be involved in his death, how would the outcome in the case be different?

The documentary includes some history of racial injustice against black people in the Valdosta area, including the notorious 1918 lynching of pregnant Mary Turner. She and her unborn baby (who was ripped from her womb and stomped to death) were murdered by an angry white mob just because she protested the lynching of her husband. Although many people would like to think that America’s worst racism is in the past, the point that the documentary makes is this type of damaging racism that has been passed down from generations just doesn’t suddenly go away when new civil rights laws are passed.

It remains to be seen what the final outcome of the Kendrick Johnson case will be, but his family members and other supporters say that they will never give up their fight to get justice for Kendrick. Regardless of how people think Kendrick died, his death is still a tragedy. “Finding Kendrick Johnson” might not have the answers to his death, but it seems like the documentary has the noble intention to help the Johnson family find some measure of peace in their ongoing nightmare with the legal system.

Gravitas Ventures released “Finding Kendrick Johnson” on digital and VOD on July 30, 2021. The movie will be released in select U.S. cinemas on October 29, 2021.

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