IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

New film revisits mysterious death of Black high school athlete in rural Georgia

Kendrick Johnson, 17, was found dead in 2013, but his family says in the documentary they will continue to fight for justice because his "life mattered."
Kenneth Johnson and Jacquelyn Johnson, the parents of Kendrick, reflect over photos of their fallen son in the new documentary "Finding Kendrick Johnson."
Kenneth Johnson and Jacquelyn Johnson, the parents of Kendrick, reflect over photos of their fallen son in the new documentary "Finding Kendrick Johnson."Jason Pollock

The mysterious death of a Black high school wrestler in 2013 is the subject of “Finding Kendrick Johnson” — a new documentary out Friday — and the boy’s family is hoping its release could lead to people with information coming forward.

The body of Kendrick Johnson, 17, was found wrapped in a wrestling mat in the Lowndes High School gym in Valdosta, Georgia. His death was ruled an accidental asphyxiation by state and local law officials, including the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, who said the teen inadvertently caused his own demise by diving into a rolled-up mat to retrieve his sneakers.   

Gravitas Films

Kendrick’s family and supporters across the country were outraged by the results of the investigation, and have even had his body exhumed twice for independent examination. Jacquelyn Johnson, his mother, told NBC News on Thursday that she and her family have continued to “fight for justice. My son’s life mattered.”

In March, a local sheriff reopened Kendrick’s case. “I’m grateful that the case was reopened,” Johnson said, “but don’t feel like anything will be done. 

Documentary filmmaker Jason Pollock has been researching Kendrick’s death since 2017. The Johnsons and Pollock said they want the documentary to inspire anyone with information to speak up.

“Because it’s the Deep South, there is white silence on one side and a fear of retaliation on the Black side,” Pollock said.

Kendrick's classmates Brian and Branden Bell, who are white, were considered persons of interest, through an FBI investigation of the case, according to Valdosta Today. Their father, Rick Bell, was an FBI agent who eventually resigned his job after his house was raided and searched for evidence. The brothers were never charged and an FBI video analysis concluded they were in different areas of the school when Kendrick entered the gym.

The film, distributed by Gravitas Ventures, will play in select theaters and will be available on demand beginning July 30. The actor Hill Harper is an executive producer, and the director Malcolm D. Lee is a producer. The actor Jenifer Lewis is an executive producer and narrates the film, which features news footage, historical video, in-depth interviews with parents, family, friends and investigators and animation that bring to life the vibrancy those close to Kendrick said he possessed.

It also shows a unified Johnson family — strong parents in Jacquelyn and her husband, Kenneth, caring children and relatives — who remain heartbroken but defiant after losing their “shining light.”

But the purported revelations in the film are significant. Pollock, who also made the 2017 documentary “Stranger Fruit” about Michael Brown, a Black teen who was fatally shot in 2014 by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, worked on “nothing else for the last four years,” he said. “Only Kendrick Johnson.”.

After years of research, Pollock asserts that Kendrick's death was no accident and that a cover-up ensued. “I don’t know who killed Kendrick Johnson,” he said. “But his death was not an accident.” 

Jacquelyn Johnson, mother of Kendrick, during a moment while filming the documentary.Jason Pollock

Throughout the investigation, the Bell brothers insisted they had not seen Kendrick on the day of his death. But Pollock uncovered school footage obtained by the FBI of Kendrick and Brian about 4 feet apart in the school that afternoon. Further, the FBI made note of their proximity to each other in its report: “Kendrick Johnson is observed in a covered walkway moving towards the camera. Bell is observed in the same location at this time.”

 “And yet, that was not released to anyone,” Pollock said. The Bell brothers had said several times that they had not seen Kendrick that day, including in a 2015 interview with the Atlanta TV station WSB

When asked by a reporter whether he had anything to do with Kendrick's death, Brian said, “No. He was one of my good friends.” Branden added, “Me and my brother have been innocent and always will be innocent.” 

Their account, Pollock and the Johnsons said, has been the prevailing narrative in Valdosta. 

Mitch Credle, a veteran homicide detective in Washington, D.C., was brought in to lead the investigation after several local officials recused themselves. He said he felt from the beginning there “was a cover-up” after meeting with the coroner. According to Credle, the coroner had almost immediately ruled the death accidental when evidence did not support that assessment.

A family member views photo of Kendrick as a youth football player. Jason Pollock

Credle also cited missing evidence and suspicious circumstances, like the fact that Kendrick, who was 5-foot-10 with shoulders 19 inches wide, was found inside a mat that the FBI indicated was 14 inches wide.

Pollock also said he found security camera footage of the gym — which is where Kendrick's body was found — that had previously been missing. It has not been turned over to authorities.

“Mitch Credle is a brave man to whistleblow as he has,” Pollock said. “We were going to blur his face, but he was against that. He wanted to stand up for what’s right.” 

The family later had Kendrick’s body exhumed and they hired an independent coroner, Dr. William R. Anderson, to run more tests.  The original coroner’s report ruled the cause of death as an accidental asphyxiation. But when that occurs, fluid builds up in the lungs and the lungs end up weighing up to 10 times more than they normally do, Anderson said.

“But Kendrick’s lungs had no fluid,” he said. “That was the first red flag. He did not die of asphyxiation.”

Anderson, after a second exhumation of Kendrick’s body, ran molecular tests that produced blood slides that showed the teen died of blunt force trauma. Those findings, Anderson, Pollock and the Johnson family said, were ignored by Georgia law enforcement officials. So Anderson sent the slides to other pathologists, who came to the same conclusions. 

Kendrick Johnson's mother, Jacquelyn Johnson, visits her son's gravesite.Jason Pollock

In the end, Credle said, “We let them down. We are not supposed to let families down.”

Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson insist their campaign to get justice for their son will not conclude until it happens. They elected to show images of his battered face on posters and flyers they distributed as they sought witnesses, as Emmett Till’s mother did in the infamous 1955 case in Mississippi, to illuminate the violence that befell him.

“If this was a white kid dead and a Black person of interest, it would have been solved eight years ago in two months,” Pollock said. “Kendrick represents so much and his story represents so much more than this case. I just saw this documentary about waves. A big wave happens because of the depth under the wave. I believe that the canyon of KJ is so deep in the consciousness of Black America. And when they see the truth, a wave is going to be unlike anything we’ve seen.” 

“So, his story represents so much more than just the horrendous facts of the case. It also is a mirror into America right now.”

Follow NBCBLK on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.