3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets
3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets documentary, not rated, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles
The terrible truth is that timing is not important in the release of a documentary about the senseless killing of African-Americans in this country. The odds of the release coinciding with another similar tragedy are all too good.
With the shock still vivid from last month’s murders of nine black parishioners by a young white zealot in a Charleston church, a film about an earlier racist killing arrives in theaters. 3½ Minutes, Ten
Bullets deals with the 2012 murder of Jordan Davis, an African-American teenager, in a Jacksonville, Florida, gas station and the subsequent trial of his admitted killer, a forty-seven-year-old white man named Michael Dunn.
Here’s what happened. Dunn pulled into the gas station and parked next to a car where four teenagers were playing music at a loud volume. He asked them to turn it down. They did, but then turned it back up again, apparently at the insistence of Davis. Words were exchanged. Dunn pulled a gun from his glove compartment and fired into the boys’ car. He continued firing as the panicked teenagers tried to flee. Seventeen-year-old Davis was killed.
Dunn fled the scene with his fiancée, who had been inside the station’s convenience store when the shooting occurred. He was arrested the next morning. His defense was that Florida standby for such a racially charged shooting: the state’s Stand Your Ground self-defense law.
It was less than a year after the killing of another unarmed black seventeen-year-old Floridian, Trayvon Martin, by George Zimmerman, a white man who would successfully use Stand Your Ground as his defense.
A radio caller on the movie’s soundtrack asks the obvious question: If this had been a middle-aged African-American firing into a car filled with white teenagers who were playing loud country music, how differently would it be perceived by the press and public?
Sometime after his arrest, Dunn articulated his case: He thought he saw Davis aim a gun at him from the other car, and he fired to protect himself. No weapon was found in the teenagers’ vehicle or nearby. Under the controversial Florida law, it is not required that there actually be a weapon, only that the defendant thought he saw one, or perceived a legitimate threat to his life and safety.
Perception is at the heart of this tragedy. It is not so much a question of whether or not Dunn saw, or thought he saw, something that might have been the barrel of a shotgun, or whether that claim was something introduced later to fortify his defense. What is clear is the perception by the shooter that these kids were “thugs” (a term now perceived by many AfricanAmericans as a racial slur); that they represented a threat, or at least an affront to his dignity; and that he was justified in going for his gun and pumping 10 shots into a car full of teenagers.
Director Marc Silver (Who Is Dayani Cristal?) has laid out a strong case. He introduces us to Davis’ parents, Ron Davis and Lucia McBath, long divorced but brought back together by the agony of their son’s murder. McBath’s father was an NAACP president in Illinois and worked with Lyndon Johnson on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In her 2013 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee investigating Stand Your Ground laws, she said, “If he could see me today, testifying in front of the United States Senate, he would be beaming with pride and amazed at how far his daughter had come. Until he came to understand what brought me here.”
We meet Davis’ girlfriend and the boys who were with him that night in the car — nice, open kids who remember their buddy fondly as a sharp dresser and a lousy basketball player. Silver plays us Dunn’s plaintive taped phone calls to his fiancée from jail: “I got attacked, and I fought back because I didn’t want to be a victim, and now I’m in trouble.” The director interviews witnesses and shows us footage of the initial police interrogation of Dunn, a man apparently untroubled by his actions and expecting a quick release.
Silver’s camera was given access to the courtroom, and he takes us inside to show us the machinery and theatricality of justice at work. It’s not exactly great moviemaking, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a devastating look at the jeopardy and vulnerability of African-Americans in what the Supreme Court has declared to be post-racial America. Sometimes repetitious, sometimes voyeuristic, at its best the film is a reminder of the humanity and the decency of the victims it puts before us, and the sense of entitlement in the hearts of white men who stand their ground against unarmed black teenagers. — Jonathan Richards
Jordan Davis and his killer Michael Dunn