Overview: On November 23, 2012, Jordan Davis, a black 17-year-old, and three friends drove into a gas station in Jacksonville, Fla. Davis and his friends got into a verbal altercation with white 45-year-old Michael Dunn, who took issue with the volume of the teenagers’ rap music. When Davis refused to turn down the music, Dunn opened fire on the car of unarmed teenagers. He fired 10 bullets, three of which hit Davis, who died at the scene. Dunn fled, but was taken into custody the next day. He claimed that he shot in self-defense.
Filmed over a period of 18 months, the documentary intercuts intimate scenes with Davis’ family and friends with footage from Michael Dunn’s trial and police interrogation, news reports, and prison phone recordings between Dunn and his fiancée. Drawing on 200 hours of footage, the documentary aims to reconstruct the night of the murder, delving into the intricate web of racial prejudice in 21st century America and how such prejudices can result in tragedy.
Expectations: Do the math. 200 hours of footage on this crime and those affected. Boil all that down to 100 minutes and you got the raw essence of what this is all about. When I leave this documentary I will undoubtedly know the circumstances, the victim, the perpetrator, those close to them, the aftermath and the ramifications. Though this type of story angers me more day by day, it is a story that deserves to be told. I will learn the details of what happened in 3 ½ minutes when 10 bullets were fired off that day.
Gut Reaction: Upon watching this documentary several statements could be said about modern society nowadays. One of the least significant facts is that in today’s tech age you can pull resources from just about anywhere to flesh out a story. This is not the only documentary as of late to be able to utilize security footage, home movies, new reports and trial video transcripts to make those story complete. Now, you can see how easily they could get 200 hours of usable material to shape the film from.
I remembered vague details about this crime and its final verdict and to see it here, which I’m glad I did, makes clear the complexity of the case. The real argument here, for me, is the validity of a Florida State law, the Stand Your Ground Law. It makes it sound like you can do what you want than cite your right to Stand Your Ground or self- defense and you’ll be alright. The defense attorney at the trial even stated to the jury that it doesn’t matter whether you like the law or not it is on the books as Law. So the whole trial was based on whether Michael Dunn (pictured) believed he was threatened by Jordan Davis or not. Was it a hate crime due to race? They all pussyfooted around that claim in court, but not in front of the media. They claim it was not, but the subtext was there. The film maker has an interesting comment regarding below. What it is though, is a damn shame. What results is a loss of life for the victim, loss of freedom for the perpetrator, lifelong grief for the families and a state law more trouble than its worth.
One surprise moment is the courtroom testimony that establishes that Michael Dunn loved his fiancée and states that when she returned to the car and they left the scene and that night in the hotel he told her it was self-defense because the boys drew a weapon. Yet, when she was called back into the court and took the stand she answered that he never mentioned the boys having one. That meant that Dunn did not confide that information to the one person you would think he would confide all to because it wasn’t truthfully what happened. Gotcha!
Lastly, though briefly, this documentary sheds light on a horrible trend in this country. Soon people will be taking justice and law into their own hands at high noon on the main street gunslinger fashion like in the Old West. I need to step away with the Bonus portion before I launch into several more paragraphs about what this documentary and the current state of affairs says about us all…and it isn’t good.
Bonus: HBO interviewed the filmmaker, Marc Silver (pictured), on what drew him to this case.
HBO: How did you first hear about the Jordan Davis case?
MARC SILVER: The future producers of the film sent me a Rolling Stone article. We wrote to Jordan’s parents, and they were up for us going to Florida for a week to meet them. In that first week, we met all of Jordan’s family, his friends, the boys that were in the car with him, his girlfriend. We discussed how sometimes you need these stories to be fully realized to inspire, or at least link into, social change and activist movements.
HBO: How did you select the assets you considered essential to tell the story?
MS: I didn’t want to make a reconstruction of what happened. And sitting through the trial, I just felt like it’s a fascinating space to sit in. You’ve got the prosecutor and the defense, and at times it felt like whoever was able to tell the best narrative would win.
We actually did request interviews with Michael Dunn, Rhonda Rouer and his family a few times, but they declined to be interviewed. Now I look back, and I’m sure we get a deeper sense of the truth via those phone calls than we probably ever would have by doing a face-to-face interview.
There was also something about Jordan being absent. How do you build his character in his absence? So I started looking at the assets we had: the TV footage, the interviews, the gas station footage, the old family videos of Jordan as a baby. Filming the trial, I thought maybe there’s a way to put the audience in the space that the jury was in. By dropping in certain information, essentially via the same evidence the police had, I think forces the audience to reflect on their own potential biases.
HBO: As a filmmaker and storyteller, do you see this as a political film?
MS: I was very keen not to hit people over the head with the politics side of it. I wanted people to come to that conclusion themselves. At the very heart of it, it’s one person’s story, or a story about one person. But of course there are different layers, particularly with Michael Dunn. As everything else was unfolding in the U.S., from Ferguson onwards, Michael Dunn became this symbol to me of how certain parts of America are also naïve to their own racism. We realized that the DNA of what happened in those 3 ½ minutes was the same DNA in all these other shootings, which is essentially unarmed black young men being killed by armed white men claiming fear. The film, of course, is political, but I think in a sense it becomes political because of everything else that is happening in the U.S. The story itself is hugely personal.
HBO: You’ve mentioned a distinction between the forensics of what happened and how the case stands metaphorically—can you explain?
MS: I think maybe the easiest way to answer that is by looking at the defense lawyer. You can delve deeply into what happened—did Jordan open his door? Was there a gun? But I realized that delving into these questions in detail doesn’t actually lead to a truth. Even to the point where race wasn’t to be discussed in the courtroom, because it wasn’t identified as a hate crime. So even though you’re digging into every single millimeter of detail of the case, the biggest thing that everybody else in the courtroom knows isn’t part of that forensic examination.
Ironically, all of that is going on in a courtroom where the big seal of Florida is hanging above the judge’s head, speaking about in God we trust. You look around the room, and you’re like “God, I don’t even know who to trust—or what to trust!” It became necessary, if you like, to start thinking about the film in terms of details that could be manipulated versus truths that were never spoken about.
HBO: What is Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law?
MS: It basically exonerates people based on what you might think was going on in their head, rather than anything that’s factually provable. And I understand as a jury member, the law would allow me to basically guess what was going on in the killer’s head and then give me the means to excuse a killer’s actions based on the fear that the killer described pre-shooting.
In Conclusion: Clearly, my comment proves that I saw it as a political issue. I realize the families of both the victim, Jordan Davis (pictured) and the perpetrator saw this all so differently. In the end it is just tragic for all.
I’m also left with one more thought to share. We have terrorists out to kill us these days. Do we really need to be killing each other over ‘loud music’ and ‘looking tough’? We need to work harder at ‘standing united.’
Next Week: On November 30 is the encore presentation of PARADISE LOST 3: PURGATORY. Its review was the second post this writer ever wrote for HBOWatch!