Commentary

With “3 ½ Minutes,” documentary film highlights timely and painful issue

Credit: Candescent Films

On November 23, 2012, 17-year-old Jordan Davis was shot and killed in Jacksonville, Florida, by Michael Dunn, who was subsequently charged with – and eventually convicted of – first-degree murder. The altercation began with music being played too loud in the parking lot of a gas station and ended with the death of a young black man, less than a year after Trayvon Martin died. Soon after his death, Ron Davis received a text from another grieving father, Tracy Martin, a mere five hours south from Jacksonville: “Welcome to a club none of us want to be in.”

Jordan’s story was highlighted at the Full Frame Documentary Festival this past weekend in Durham, and unfortunately, 3 ½ Minutes is as timely as ever. The film covers the circumstances of Jordan’s death and subsequent legal battle – often called the “thug music” trial, since Dunn’s fiancée testified that mere minutes before he shot 10 bullets into the car where Jordan and three of his friends were listening to music, Dunn told her, “I hate that thug music.”

The film documents the case’s long and tumultuous journey through the legal system. The first trial ended in a mistrial last February after the jury convicted Dunn, who is white, of three counts of attempted second-degree murder for firing at the other teenagers in the car but could not agree on the first-degree murder charge. The eventual retrial ended with the jury finding Dunn guilty of first-degree murder on October 1, 2014.

Every year, Full Frame offers dozens of films that reflect both the past and immediate struggles of modern life. In addition to 3 ½ Minutes, this year’s offerings included films highlighting police brutality (Peace Officer); struggles in Mexico, Russia, and North Korea (Western, Cartel Land, Kings of Nowhere, Kingdom of Shadows; The Term; Red Chapel); the environment (Containment, Overburden); autism (How to Dance in Ohio); the human cost of war and the war on terror (Of Men and War, Tell Spring Not to Come This Year, (T)ERROR)… and circus life (The Circus Dynasty).

No film felt quite as timely as 3 ½ Minutes. With new cases of unarmed black men being shot cropping up with alarming consistency, the film’s impact is even greater.
Central to the film is the difficult and subjective nature of Florida’s notorious “Justifiable Use of Force” or “Stand Your Ground” law. Dunn’s lawyer argued that he acted in self-defense and was protected under the law to “not be a victim,” as Dunn claimed he was “scared for [his] life and fought back.” After a brief exchange with Jordan over the loud music, Dunn said that he saw the teenager produce a rifle, pipe, or some mysterious object, although no weapon was ever found. Later, Dunn’s fiancée testified that he never mentioned this alleged weapon in the hours and even days after the shooting. As in the case of Trayvon Martin, under the law there didn’t have to be a real threat, just a perceived one – a dangerous precedent when trying to determine someone’s motive.

Dunn was eventually sentenced to life in prison without parole. The judge commented after the sentencing, “There’s nothing wrong with retreating and deescalating a situation. Losing a child is a parent’s worst nightmare… and your life is effectively over, Mr. Dunn.” Interspersed throughout the film is footage of the courtroom, talk radio clips from the Jacksonville area of residents debating both sides of the issue, audio of phone calls between Dunn and his fiancée during his time in prison, and – most powerfully – interviews with Jordan’s parents and the young men with him when he died. Many watching the film already knew the outcome of the trial, but after watching most of it play out on screen, the audience cheered at Dunn’s eventual conviction. After a year of controversial court rulings, there seemed to be catharsis in seeing some measure of justice brought to Jordan Davis’ family.

That was particularly evident when Ron Davis took the stage for a question and answer session after the screening. Similar to the text he had received from Tracy Martin in 2012, Ron told the audience he had been in touch with the family of Walter Scott, the man shot and killed by a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, last week.

Ron has become well-versed in the historic nature of Jordan’s case as well as the prevalence of “Stand Your Ground” laws that exist in 22 states across the U.S. He pointed out how rare it was for a black teenager to be shot by a white man – and have have that man be convicted by an all-white jury in the Southern United States. He warned against the danger of “Stand Your Ground” statutes which force juries to put themselves in the minds of the shooters, who have to simply think someone is a threat to be protected under the law.

“I can’t fathom that we live in a time where lives don’t matter,” Ron said, telling the audience that he hoped they would take action after leaving the theater. “Hold [the film] in your mind and keep it with you. Let it be something in the back of your mind – how can you make changes? Saying ‘I’m just one person’ is an excuse.”

Watch the trailer below.

3½ MINUTES Sundance trailer from marc silver on Vimeo.

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