HBO’s latest documentary, The Case Against Adnan Syed, markets itself as a promoter of justice. A four-part series, it delves into the 1999 disappearance and murder of high school senior Hae Min Lee, vowing to find “justice for Hae.” The Case Against strives to make Lee the center of the narrative. However, it clearly comes armed with an agenda: to exonerate Lee’s convicted killer, Adnan Syed.
Most of us were introduced to Syed five years ago when the hit podcast Serial covered his case. Serial was a nuanced deep-dive into Lee’s murder and the subsequent investigation; host Sarah Koenig dug through mounds of evidence and conducted wide-scale interviews in an effort to piece together what happened. However, the bulk of her podcast focused on Syed: parsing his demeanor, picking apart his alibi, and ultimately, questioning whether he was a guilty man.
Since Serial’s debut, Syed has become a celebrity of sorts. Though he remains in prison, many believe in his innocence. He was even briefly granted a new trial before his conviction was reinstated. His role in Lee’s murder has become a hotly contested debate by armchair detectives across the nation. And as a result, the case has become about solving a mystery rather than pursuing justice for Hae Min Lee.
The Case Against Adnan Syed serves as a sort of addendum to Serial. It revisits the crime and teases new revelations that challenge the state’s case against Syed. The documentary also attempts to offer a more dynamic portrayal of Lee, seeking to show her as a fully-formed person rather than just a victim. What it’s really doing, though, is using her as a pawn to further its own agenda.
On the surface, The Case Against Adnan Syed appears to allow Lee to reclaim a larger part of the narrative. We get a better sense of her perspective through notes and diary entries; we hear from her friends and even see a brief news segment where she was interviewed about balancing her athletics with her schoolwork. Mostly, though, we learn about Lee only when it serves to positively reflect on Syed.
In a move that feels unnecessarily intrusive, the documentary chooses to present Lee’s perspective largely by reading entries plucked from her private journals. Most of the entries are about Syed. Syed and Lee’s love story is framed as a Romeo and Juliet-esque romance; we hear about her unwavering love for him in voiceover while the camera pans over doodles of hearts and Syed’s name scribbled over and over, the hallmark of any lovestruck teen.
Signs of anything more sinister are mentioned only in passing. One of Lee’s friends casually mentions that Syed would consistently turn up at girls’ nights and that Lee could rarely be found without him. When Syed and Lee finally broke up, a note from Lee alludes to the possibility that Syed refused to accept the breakup. The Case Against chooses to brush past red flags like these, quietly confirming that their ultimate purpose is to assert Syed’s innocence.
One revelation from the film is particularly troubling: that Lee had allegedly confided in Syed that she had been sexually abused prior to their relationship. Why would the filmmakers deem such an intimate detail relevant to the larger story? See, Adnan is a good guy, the film seems to be telling us. If Hae felt comfortable enough to tell him such a dark secret, he must be trustworthy.
The Case Against Adnan Syed’s efforts to humanize Lee ultimately feel like a manipulative attempt to convince its viewers of Syed’s innocence. For their part, Lee’s family (very understandably) declined to take part in the documentary, or in the podcast prior. As a result, though, The Case Against doesn’t feature anyone truly in Lee’s corner. No one is left to vouch for her except her very own diary entries, hopeful and in love and forever eighteen. As a result, her voice is further diminished to favor the man convicted of killing her.