On January 24, 2007, 19-year-old Robert Rihmeek Williams was arrested on his South Philly doorstep. He doesn’t recall everything that happened next because, Williams says, police beat him so severely that he kept losing consciousness. Facing 19 drug, firearms and assault charges—including the allegation that he’d pointed a gun at a cop—he opted for a nonjury trial for financial reasons, was convicted on seven counts despite a dearth of evidence and got a two-year prison sentence. But it’s the eight years of probation supervised by Genece Brinkley, a notoriously tough judge who seems to have obsessed over this case, that have consigned him to more than a decade of legal turmoil, including additional time behind bars.
It’s hard to imagine Williams’ story—one that’s all too common for young black men in America—making national headlines if he weren’t better known as Meek Mill, an acclaimed rapper who’s collaborated with Rick Ross, beefed with Drake and been engaged to Nicki Minaj. Inextricable from the plagues of racism, poverty and mass incarceration, the relationship between hip-hop and crime has always been fraught. Yet Meek’s case is more reminiscent of Kafka’s The Trial than the legal woes of contemporaries like Kodak Black and Tekashi 6ix9ine. The still-ongoing ordeal has transformed him into an activist for criminal justice reform, in a crusade whose latest manifestation is the Amazon Prime miniseries Free Meek, out August 9.
As its title suggests, the five-part documentary makes no claims of impartiality. Produced in part by his record label, Roc Nation, its agenda is to vindicate Meek Mill, now 32—and call for permanent changes that could help his less fortunate counterparts across the country. Through interviews with the rapper, his devoted family and Roc Nation staffers including founder Jay-Z, a portrait coalesces of a talented young artist with a passionate local following who saw his career thwarted time and again by a rigged system. Lawyers (including one who represents Brinkley, caught on a hot mic) and journalists attest to the absurdity of Meek’s predicament; Rolling Stone reporter Paul Solotaroff sums up the consensus when he recalls, “I had never seen a case built on less.” Unusually subtle reenactments convey the frustration of feeling trapped in a system determined to squash your success and control your every move, despite your best efforts to satisfy its restrictive demands.
As it traces Meek’s case and career, the doc illuminates several of the broader but less publicized issues his story exemplifies. Like Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, it draws attention to the extreme challenges faced by the 4.5 million Americans caught in the probation system, demonstrating how one relatively minor conviction can lead to a lifetime of cycling in and out of prison. Judge Brinkley’s near-sovereign power over Meek’s fate is hardly unique, even if her backstory and the details of their relationship are remarkable. (He claims she once brought him and Minaj into her chambers and pressured him to record a remix of Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee” featuring shout-outs to women who’d helped him—Brinkley included. She denies it.) Less shocking but more damning is the miniseries’ revelation of the role dirty cops played in his initial arrest.
It’s only one of many infuriating discoveries made by the team of private investigators who finally helped turn the tide in Meek’s favor after he returned to prison in 2017, in a decision that drew the outrage of fans and activists. Brinkley had sentenced him to an additional two-to-four years in prison for popping a wheelie on a motorcycle in New York—despite the fact that authorities there had dropped the charges against him. The final two episodes follow his allies’ ultimately successful efforts to extricate him from her grasp. (On July 24, his original conviction was finally overturned.) If the transition from deep dive into recent history to present-tense detective story feels a bit bumpy, both parts of the narrative are equally important. Only someone from Meek’s background could end up ensnared in a saga like this one—and only someone with the cultural footprint he’s established since his arrest could make such common injustices front-page news.