Film Review – Why Did You Kill Me?
Why Did You Kill Me?
Amongst the plethora of true crime documentaries coming out – seemingly weekly on Netflix – is Why Did You Kill Me? (2021). The story itself is a sad one, about a life being taken far too early. But in terms of presentation, there isn’t much here that differentiates it from docs like it. It’s not exactly the sensational kind of material that would spread by word of mouth, in fact the events unfold in a fairly straightforward manner. Unless someone is a hardcore true crime fan, this doesn’t offer a whole lot outside of being a mild curiosity.
The twist this time focuses on the use of social media to help solve a murder. In February 2006, 24-year-old Crystal Theobald was shot and killed in the Riverside area of Los Angeles. Upset and enraged, Crystal’s mother (Belinda Lane) went on a personal crusade to track down the killers. With the help of Crystal’s younger sister, Belinda created a fake MySpace account to befriend neighborhood gang members (specifically the Hispanic 5150 gang) in hopes of getting inside information. Against the instruction of law enforcement, Belinda used social media to dig deeper and deeper, to the point of antagonizing gangs toward violence.
Often, documentaries about social media tend to focus on its destructive side effects: how becoming more addicted to internet validation can cause a person’s self-esteem to plummet. Here, director Fredrick Munk (in his feature length debut) shows how it can be weaponized, used as a tool for those with a vendetta. Recreating the look of 2000s MySpace (the style of the website immediately dates it), we watch how Belinda used a picture of Crystal as a disguise. Crystal’s sister explains how easy it was (and thus painful) to play a character and feed off of the emotions of the people responsible for Crystal’s death.
Clocking in at eighty-three minutes, Munk’s film doesn’t suffer from a slow pace. He has an ability to present the facts in a short time span, packing in everything we need to know to understand the story. But the brisk editing prevents us from getting a stronger emotional reaction. There’s a missed opportunity to get a more complete view of these characters. The theme of family and loyalty is touched upon but never fully investigated. In one section, Belinda describes how she – along with her children – come from a life of crime. Her sons have all gotten into trouble, yet she dismisses it simply as “boys being boys.” In another scene, we listen to a mother of a gang member, who can’t believe that her son would do anything wrong. The two mothers, while being on opposite sides of the case, are basically saying the same thing.
Loyalty takes a backseat to the social media aspects of the doc, which is too bad because it has a stronger resonance. Sure, all the tech elements involving MySpace was interesting to look at, but the moments that stuck out are when people’s loyalties are put to the test. One gang member talked about how being part of 5150 was like being in a safe zone, where others will support you through thick and thin. It’s much easier to feel like you can do anything when you have a large support system behind you. The problem (with all gangs) is that system will immediately crumble once the law gets involved. Those that say they will do anything for you will just as quickly turn around and spill the beans to investigators. When an individual goes from being part of a larger whole to being on their own, they will say just about anything to save their own skin.
Those are the real stories of Why Did You Kill Me? – how family members will hide behind a veil of denial before seeing their loved ones for who they really are, and how loyalty means nothing in the world of crime. But they are not given enough attention, instead stepping aside to allow the procedural to take place. There are numerous shots of a miniature layout of the neighborhood where the shooting happened, but it’s cloaked in shadow, not allowing us to get a good view of the location or how it all went down. The miniature appeared to be detailed and meticulously rendered, I just wish we had a chance to see it in all of its glory.
And in the middle of it all is Crystal Theobald, a person’s whose life was cut unnecessarily short. Her death was tragic, but she operates as a minor component of the documentary. In a time where true crime docs are released all the time, intensifying in its mystery, luridness and shock, Why Did You Kill Me? feels oddly low key. That might very well be a result of audiences becoming desensitized to this material. Obviously, this story hits deeply for those that are involved in it, but for the outside observer it remains at arm’s length.