The Washington Post

Examining missing people’s missing stories


In March 2014, 8-year-old Relisha Rudd, who had been living with her family at a homeless shelter in Washington, went missing. The secondgrad­er was last seen alive on the day of her disappeara­nce: Cameras caught her entering a motel room with 51year-old Kahlil Tatum, a janitor at the shelter who had served long stints in prison. Tatum had been considered a family friend by Rudd’s mother, Shamika Young, who called him a “godfather” and had allowed the little girl to spend time with the older man on public outings and at his home, including overnight.

Tatum was eventually presumed by the police to have killed his wife and some days later himself, and Rudd was never found. Her case — compounded in tragedy by Young’s own troubled and unstable childhood in the fostercare system — was assiduousl­y covered by the local media but hardly registered on the national consciousn­ess. Gabby Petito-style news coverage has traditiona­lly been reserved for girls and women who look like Gabby Petito, and Rudd did not.

Rudd’s disappeara­nce is one of several explored in the HBO docuseries “Black and Missing.” Part of a steady drip of programmin­g attempting to reform the fire hose of true

crime entertainm­ent, the twonight, four-part series (which concluded Wednesday and is available for streaming at HBO Max) profiles the sisters-in-law who founded the Marylandba­sed Black and Missing organizati­on — and attests to why their work of circulatin­g the names, photos and identifyin­g details of Black missing people is regrettabl­y necessary.

True crime, as we know it today, is a White genre, focusing overwhelmi­ngly on White victims and White perpetrato­rs, with a tendency to ally with law enforcemen­t and uphold the prison-industrial complex. That gives its consumers a distorted sense of the world, as the factors that lead to missing girls and women — poverty, mental illness, domestic violence and police indifferen­ce — disproport­ionately impact Black (and Native) Americans.

One of the primary aims of the docuseries is to redirect the media spotlight on the groups most likely to suffer victimizat­ion. It’s no lost cause, claim co-founders Natalie Wilson, a public relations veteran, and Derrica Wilson, the first Black woman to join the Falls Church, Va., police department. After a 2012 segment about 16-year-old Mishell-nicole Diamonde Green aired on “The View,” an anonymous tipster gave Black and Missing informatio­n that eventually led to the discovery of the girl. The call came in less than 15 minutes.

The docuseries brims with similarly attention-grabbing cases, but its raison d’etre is to explore the gaps between law enforcemen­t and media organizati­ons, on the one hand, and Black communitie­s, on the other, filled by the titular organizati­on. Tips are often relayed to Black and Missing instead of the police, such is the distrust of cops by many people of color. The Wilsons claim that law enforcemen­t is slow to act on reports of missing people, too often classifyin­g underage cases as runaways rather than potential victims — a designatio­n that mandates much less urgent action.

The mainstream media is just as complicit, roaring into gear only when there’s an Elizabeth Smart or a Natalee Holloway to rescue. White femininity has long been coded as innocent and in need of protection, often from Black aggressors. Violence in Black communitie­s is treated as the norm; violence in White communitie­s as an aberration.

Given that history of polarized racializat­ion, a series commentato­r asserts that “when a Black person is in distress — missing, murdered — it’s not a big deal to much of White society because they don’t think we have much to lose.”

Sedate and somber in a stately, muted palette, “Black and Missing” can feel overly padded. Gwen Ifill’s phrase “missing White woman syndrome” — describing the frenzy with which news outlets, especially image- centric ones like television and the tabloids, focus on victims of a select demographi­c — doesn’t get name-checked until the second hour. But it’s difficult to begrudge the series when it’s conscienti­ously modeling how true crime, as well as journalism at large, should cover missing- persons cases: humanizing the victims, sensitive to the traumas of their loved ones, illuminati­ng of the psychology of abuse, de- emphasizin­g the killers or kidnappers and mindful that law enforcemen­t is made up of a wide array of individual­s, some of whom are more willing than others to reconsider their tactics and worldviews, especially when it comes to the potential revictimiz­ation of survivors.

It’s nearly impossible to discuss the subject of missing children and adults in the United States without treading into hotly debated statistics and otherwise disputed data. Early in the series, Natalie Wilson cites an alarming FBI figure, that more than 600,000 people were reported missing in 2019, without noting that only a couple thousand of those reports remain open. (More than 99 percent of children reported missing return home.) The docuseries leaves some of this guesswork and factchecki­ng up to the viewer, which is unfortunat­e, as are brief sequences dedicated to “stranger danger” (prominentl­y featuring the controvers­ial former “America’s Most Wanted” host John Walsh) that lapse into outdated fearmonger­ing.

Beyond the numbers, the Wilsons’ message remains clear: Black children are inordinate­ly subject to violence because of the many inequities of this country and because slow or no response from law enforcemen­t and the media make them a more exploitabl­e target. The stories in “Black and Missing” are truly heartbreak­ing, as are the indelible images of the grieving mothers who can’t give up the search for their children. The series’s creative team, spearheade­d by Soledad O’brien and Geeta Gandbhir, smartly spotlights a range of cases that collective­ly illustrate the difference­s among Black victims by, say, gender, age, education or neurotypic­ality. But in its zeal to revise true-crime narratives, “Black and Missing” falls back on some hoary tropes. The families’ stories are already gutwrenchi­ng enough.

The stories in ‘Black and Missing’ are truly heartbreak­ing, as are the indelible images of the grieving mothers who can’t give up the search for their children.

 ?? ?? TOP: Natalie Wilson and Derrica Wilson are cofounders of Black and Missing. LEFT: Shawn Wilkinson is the father of Akia Eggleston, whose disappeara­nce has been amplified by the nonprofit organizati­on.
TOP: Natalie Wilson and Derrica Wilson are cofounders of Black and Missing. LEFT: Shawn Wilkinson is the father of Akia Eggleston, whose disappeara­nce has been amplified by the nonprofit organizati­on.

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