The 2018 murder-suicide perpetrated by Jennifer and Sarah Hart against their six adopted children falls squarely into a genre of surreal violence that’s been fodder for true crime podcasts, Nancy Grace, Dateline NBC and every generation of such media simultaneously reconstructing and gasping at real-life horror.
The new Discovery+ documentary Broken Harts certainly shares a dose of that forensic leering as it chronicles how a mother formerly from Oregon fatally drove her family over a California cliff in 2018. The disbelieving tone of the film’s questions is familiar: How could this happen? What kind of monster would do this?
Yet the most interesting voices of Broken Harts interrogate the dynamics of the racially mixed Hart family—white mothers who adopted two trios of Black siblings and made themselves mildly internet famous sharing pseudo-inspirational content. The doc explores how Jennifer Hart, in particular, weaponized her children, most especially Devonte, for clout within contemporary protest culture, both online and in the streets of Portland.
Oakland journalist Zaron Burnett III clearly emphasizes the systemic failures that led up to the tragedy during his Broken Harts interview segments: Black children ripped from stable family members and numerous claims of child abuse against the couple that went ignored for years.
“When I sat down [to be interviewed], I made sure my focus and my answers were on the children,” Burnett says, “and on the perspective of the children and what was done to them…and how that was allowed.”
Burnett’s longform reporting on the Harts for MEL Magazine in 2018 was spurred by Black women in his Twittersphere who recognized a then-missing Devonte Hart as the boy who’d gone viral at Portland protests following the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Images of the boy carrying a “free hugs” sign and then embracing Portland Police Sgt. Bret Barnum were greeted in some media circles as a love-conquers-all tonic.
Seven years later, and with a knowledge of how Jennifer Hart carefully curated and captured her children’s junior activism, observers are confronted with the photos’ ghoulish artificiality.
“As someone who once was a Black boy, the signals of [Devonte’s] body language said to me they don’t feel safe hugging this cop.” Burnett says. “These tears are not about this protest. Instead, you see what looks like stagecraft and theatrics from a white person’s understanding of a Black experience.”
In Burnett’s view, the wielding of such powerful, entrenched narratives pervades the Hart saga, as both cover and giveaway: The same mothers who posted on Facebook about letting their son “step into his power” conveniently employed stereotypical crack-baby origin stories to explain away the children’s attempts to escape abuse and starvation. Burnett infers that Jennifer and Sarah’s white savior signals functioned effectively in largely white, liberal Oregon spaces where idealism could meld with guilt.
“Portland culture seems to be really good on the symbolic, and I appreciate all they’ve been doing in the protests in the last year,” Burnett says. “I think Portland [doesn’t] necessarily, as a culture, understand that being skeptical of yourself and others is a better way to get to the place we want to get, rather than railing against things or telling somebody what is wrong or what is right.”
For his part, Burnett has moved on to dozens of other stories since 2018 and currently hosts the iHeartRadio podcast Black Cowboys. But the story of the Harts remains present—not for its sheer horror so much as its cautionary value. After all, even the film Burnett is helping promote is magnetized slightly more toward seemingly singular killers than the state systems that repeatedly failed its six victims: Ciera, 12, Markis, 19, Hannah, 16, Abigail, 14, Devonte, 15, and Jeremiah, 14.
“The responses I got to this documentary made me know it’s still important to keep telling these stories because people are still at the shock-and-outrage stage,” Burnett says. “I grieve both for [the Hart children’s] loss and all those [kids] in similar situations and that this story basically confirms for them that nobody is coming to help them.”
SEE IT: Broken Harts streams on Discovery+.