When Meek Mill was a skinny teenager living in North Philadelphia, his grandmother and aunt grew concerned about what kind of trouble the quiet kid they were helping to raise was getting himself into.
“My niece came in and said, ‘Rihmeek down there spittin’,” his aunt Beverly Parker remembers. “I said, ‘I know he ain’t down there spittin’ on nobody!’ That’s the first thing I’m thinking, you know? So I go down there ... and he’s battling, back and forth with somebody.”
That story about Mill spitting out rhymes is told in Free Meek, the five-part, streaming documentary series that premieres on Amazon Prime on Friday, Aug. 9 and whose executive producers include rapper and entertainment kingpin Jay-Z and Project Runway reality TV vet Eli Holzman.
Free Meek is a Philadelphia story that follows the artist born Robert Rihmeek Williams — “Robert sound like a white guy’s name, Rihmeek sounded more ghetto to me," he says, explaining the roots of his moniker. It goes from those beginnings as a battle rapper whose father, Robert Parker, described by his brothers as “a drug-dealer robber,” was murdered when Meek was just 5 years old.
From there, it shows Mill battling for his freedom, through the dozen years since that he’s spent in prison and probation as a result of a 2007 gun and drug arrest. It’s a Kafkaesque journey through an often illogical legal system as Mill is repeatedly found guilty of technical infractions that either extend his probation or send him back to jail.
Free Meek almost brings the story up to the present, with the rapper’s recent status as a hip-hop superstar who has capitalized on the momentum of the #FreeMeekMill movement, which turned him into an international cause celebre and made his name synonymous with criminal justice reform.
The Amazon series is at its strongest when it attempts to uncover what really happened in the original incident in January 2007 on the 2400 block of S. Hemberger Street in South Philly, when Mill either did or didn’t pull a gun on a team of police who were set to make a drug raid on a house where he was living with his cousins.
Mill insists he did not, and argues that were if he were guilty of the alleged act, he surely would have been shot by the officers, and quite possibly killed.
One thing not in dispute is the beaten and battered physical condition the teenage suspect was in after his arrest. Central to Free Meek’s branding is the swollen-eye mugshot that witnesses say was the result of his head being used as a battering ram to open the door of the house. He also used the image on the cover of his mixtape Dreamchasers 4.
The series runs about three hours and features extensive interviews with Mill, Jay-Z, CNN commentator Van Jones, and Sixers co-owner and Mill BFF Michael Rubin, all of whom are involved with Reform Alliance, the criminal-justice initiative launched in January.
Free Meek is also spearheaded by Paul Solotaroff, the journalist whose investigation into Mill’s case was published by Rolling Stone. And the show really finds its feet in its fourth episode — titled “Filthadelphia,” in reference to a corrupt justice system, not trash on the streets.
Private investigators Tyler Maroney and Luke Brindle-Khym dig into whether Mill’s decade-long legal troubles began because of a dirty cop, an exploration that helps to lead to Mill’s release. (Inquirer reporter Mensah Dean also makes a cameo appearance in that episode.)
The series ends on an uncertain note: Mill still has a cloud over his head, out on bail after being given “extraordinary relief” and freed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in April 2018.
Memorably, that happened just in time for Meek and Rubin to take a helicopter ride from Chester to South Philly to ring the faux Liberty Bell before the start of a Philadelphia 76ers playoff game.
But since getting out, recording a chart-topping album called Championships and headlining last summer’s Made in America festival, Mill has still been on probation and under the supervision of Judge Genece Brinkley, who is depicted as his nemesis and tormentor throughout Free Meek.
Just last month, though, Mill’s fortunes changed: Pennsylvania Superior Court decided to vacate his 2007 conviction. He could still be facing a retrial, though Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office made clear at a hearing last month that they had significant questions about the credibility of Mill’s now-retired arresting officer, Reginald Graham, and the evidence that was used to convict Mill.
That could mean that Mill’s long legal saga is finally coming to an end. Free Meek details that story from the perspective of the rapper and his supporters. Mill is business partners with Jay-Z — Mill is signed to Jay’s management company, Roc Nation, and the Philly rapper just signed a deal to bring his Dream Chasers label under the Roc Nation umbrella.
So naturally, Mill comes off as the good guy in the series that advocates for him just as he’s discovering his own power to advocate and the power of the position he’s in.
There’s a consensus among those heard from in the series that Brinkley, who has now been removed from the case, was out to get Mill for unexplained reasons.
Since she hasn’t commented publicly, her point of view isn’t conveyed, except by her attorney, Charles Peruto Jr., who defends the judge’s decisions in on-camera interviews, but is also heard questioning her reasoning in off-camera remarks, post-interview.
But no matter whose side you take, it’s hard not to come away from Free Meek without being impressed by Mill, an undeniable street rapper born into the most challenging of circumstances, whose career has been marked by an unflagging drive to forge ahead despite legal hurdles and his own mistakes.
Since he’s been out, Mill has, to his credit, stuck to his word about speaking out about the need to change a system that, as Reform Alliance chair Jones points out in the movie, holds 2.2 million people in prison in the U.S., with another 4.5 million on parole and probation.
Jones also argues that “it was inevitable that there would be a rapper like Meek Mill.” What he means is that with the long history of rappers who have had run-ins with the law, from Slick Rick to Tupac Shakur to Gucci Mane, it was only a matter of time until an emcee would emerge with a story to tell that had the potential to be a catalyst for change.
Jay-Z jokes in Free Meek that after the length and depth of his ordeal that you couldn’t blame the Philly rapper if he went on an endless celebratory jag till the end of his days. Instead, Championships is a mix of party jams and more substantive content about life in the 'hood, like “Oodles O’ Noodles Babies.”
Indeed, Free Meek makes a convincing case that Mill’s trials and tribulations have matured the rapper and made him a more thoughtful man, one who’s been through the kind of hellish experience that many of his cohorts rap about without having actually lived.
“It gave me a story to tell,” he says, and while that tale often seems like the stuff of a nightmare, Free Meek portrays a man who has woken up from it with a renewed purpose in life.