The cover of Dreams & Nightmares, Meek Mill’s debut album from 2012, shows a handcuff conjoined with a Rolex. Until recently, the image illustrated Meek’s own situation: in public, he emerged as an unlikely rap star; in court, he remained under the watchful eye of a broken probation system. Just as Meek Mill was achieving his American Dream, America went and intervened.
Released last week, Amazon’s five-part Free Meek docuseries traces how the Philly rapper became a surprise figurehead in the movement for criminal justice reform. The show is, at turns, great true-crime TV, a touching biography, and a persuasive call to action. Through re-enactments of witness testimony, key moments from Meek’s 12 years of probation hearings start to take shape. Those close to him (including JAY-Z, an executive producer here), as well as various attorneys and investigators, provide the series’ strong narrative arc.
It starts with Meek’s 2007 arrest—after he was caught coming out of a stash house where his cousins operated, during a violent raid by the Philadelphia police department’s drug task force—and the subsequent drug and weapon charges he faced, based largely on the arresting officer’s word. Then comes the never-ending cycle of punishment: an initial prison sentence of 11 to 23 months and five years on parole, a five-month sentence (and more parole time) in 2014 over supposed parole violations, and another two to four-year sentence in 2017—all overseen by a judge that, for nearly the entirety of Meek’s adult life, has tried to control his whereabouts in ways that cross the line.
But Meek’s story is really two stories playing out concurrently: his ascent from hungry battle-rapping corner boy to chart-topping street rap savant, and his subsumption deeper into the criminal justice system. To that end, Free Meek is a treatise on how rap saved Meek from American inequity twice, but not without essentially landing him back behind bars in between. The doc asks how a young man who escaped poverty and violence to make a better life for himself still ends up shackled by what evidence suggests is a wrongful conviction. Even with billionaire owners of sports teams financing Meek and the District Attorney’s office recommending a new trial, he was still trapped. And if he can’t escape, the series suggests, what chance does anyone else have?
Meek has been penalized in court for simply being a rapper: his erratic touring schedule, the way he looks and dresses, and his demeanor have all been scrutinized by his judge, Genece Brinkley. He’s countered the court’s censure in songs throughout his career, which are used in Free Meek almost as soundbites, reiterating points with more fire or broaching topics Meek doesn’t otherwise. “And even worse, my judge black, don’t wanna see me do well/It’s either that or black people for sale/Gave me two to four years like, ‘Fuck your life, meet me in hell,’” he raps poignantly on last year’s “Trauma.” His lyrics fill the screen in big block letters as if being noted for the record by a stenographer; his music is the most convincing testimony in the court of public opinion.
At its core, Free Meek is a tale of perseverance marked by harrowing melodrama and the occasional absurdity. The rapper is caught in the crossfire of a corrupt drug task force that sets up dealers just to rob them. Judge Brinkley allegedly tells him to cover a Boyz II Men song as penance. So much of the story is stranger than fiction. It’s Meek who grounds it, makes it real. “I don’t want to be judged off of coming from a fucked up environment; I want to be judged from being a good person, good soul, first,” he says in the first episode. After several years of enduring jokes about how he’s always yelling in his raps, what’s striking about Free Meek is how soft-spoken and introspective he is about his struggles, and the larger imbalances they reflect.
The later episodes contextualize Meek’s case within a larger web of Philly police corruption, as well as the greater history of criminal justice malpractice against black offenders. Still, the series never loses sight of what makes his situation so specific—the cinematic details of the freedom campaign surrounding him, like when he was helicoptered into a 76ers playoff game immediately after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted him bail last year. Free Meek captures the flipside of such celebrations: In his commentary, Meek says he doesn’t even remember going to the 76ers game on the day of his release. He watches videos of himself from around that time and sees someone who appears happy. In reality, he was struggling with overwhelming depression. Similarly, his 2015 beef with Drake is portrayed in Free Meek as stemming from pent-up animosity over his five-month jail sentence the previous winter. Being in and out of prison not only shaped Meek’s life and music—it damaged his psyche.
This particular story has a happy ending, at least for now. Last month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned Meek’s 2008 conviction and Judge Brinkley’s 2017 probation violation ruling; he’s getting a new trial on all charges. Meek reconciled with Drake: Their hit collaboration, “Going Bad,” was the lead single from Meek’s chart-topping comeback album, Championships, last year. But the war is far from won. Millions without Meek’s resources face similar fates in the court system. (The rapper, it’s worth noting, has launched a criminal-justice reform organization with JAY-Z and proposed a probation and parole reform bill in Pennsylvania.) Ultimately, Free Meek is a tribute to a well-fought battle, and a call to arms for those still to come.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork