The true story behind ‘Tell Them You Love Me’
(Credit: Netflix)

Films

The true story behind ‘Tell Them You Love Me’

Documentaries based on true events have always performed well on Netflix, but Tell Them You Love Me presents one of the most complex and powerful explorations of a criminal trial to hit the streaming service in a long time.

Executive produced by Louie Theroux and directed by Nick August-Perna, the story follows the relationship between married white university professor Anna Stubblefield and Derrick Johnson, a nonverbal Black man with cerebral palsy.

Once Johnson’s mother caught wind of the entanglement between the two, she alleged that her son was incapable of consenting, leading to a wide-ranging debate on the notion of disability, race, power dynamics, and sexuality.

Stubblefield was an ethics professor at Newark’s Rutgers University, and she first met Johnson in 2009 through his brother John, who was a student of hers. She offered to help Derrick with his communication skills, after which he learned to use a keyboard and LED screen to type, eventually taking classes with her assistance.

According to Stubblefield, during that time, they fell in love with each other and engaged in a consensual sexual relationship. Derrick’s mother, Daisy, was in vehement disagreement, outlining that her son didn’t possess the capacity for physical and emotional intimacy, and the way he was using his keyboard to communicate simply wasn’t possible unless his alleged lover was responsible for manipulating his responses.

Once charges were brought against her, the idea of facilitated communication became central to Stubblefield’s defence. Although widely discredited by the scientific community, the practice’s supporters maintain that it allows nonverbal people to communicate. The courts initially ruled against her, with Stubblefield initially being sentenced to 12 years in prison after being found guilty on two counts of first-degree aggravated sexual assault.

Stubblefield claimed that Derrick had the intellectual capabilities to communicate without her facilitating the messages, whereas a clinical psychologist had determined several years earlier that his “comprehension seemed to be quite limited” and that he “lacks the cognitive capacity to understand and participate in decisions.”

Two years after her conviction, the verdict was overturned in 2017, with a panel of judges decreeing that the first trial had “unfairly excluded evidence related to the man’s capacity to give consent.” Upon her second trial, Stubblefield accepted a deal and pleaded guilty to criminal sexual contact, where she was subsequently released from prison based on time served.

There are complicated questions at the heart of Tell Them You Love Me, which makes Netflix’s new docuseries a fascinating – if regularly difficult and occasionally troublesome – watch that asks big questions that relate to society as a whole by zeroing in on a case centred on either a compliant party or victim who wasn’t declared legally able to answer for themselves.