Black Friday, 2012. Dusk had barely fallen in Jacksonville, Florida. The neighborhood was respectable. Seventeen-year-old Jordan Davis was with friends, driving to music, and pulling up at a gas station just blocks from home. And yet the circumstances weren’t safe enough: Mere minutes later, he was shot dead by a stranger.
Taking that tragedy as its starting point, documentarian Marc Silver’s “3 ½ Minutes” is an extraordinarily powerful dissection of those final moments of Davis life. At issue is the heated verbal tussle he experienced with Michael Dunn, the 47-year old white male who fired the shots that killed him in an act claimed as “self defense” over a disagreement about the volume of the music in Davis’s car.
Anchoring the documentary in the trials that followed the incident, Silver intersperses the footage with archival footage of the ensuing media coverage, conversations with Davis’s family and friends, and recorded phone conversations between an incarcerated Dunn and his fiancé, Rhonda Rouer.
Silver’s debut, “Who is Dayani Cristal?,” earned him the Cinematography Award in Sundance 2013’s World Documentary Cinema section, and the signature sleekness of his work makes for a fitting enhancement to “3 ½ Minutes” as well — with glossy establishing shots of the Florida metropolis and deeply focused scenes lending an authoritative grasp on his subject. The polished finish is atypical in a genre where gritty visuals and handheld techniques are equated with authenticity. But, like the facts of the case themselves, there’s nothing shaky nor fabricated about Silver’s lens as he places it front and center of the courtroom, assuming a quiet perch behind it while the evidence speaks for itself. As witnesses testify, the accused is cross-examined, and attorneys make their arguments, the movie compels viewers to take closer looks at the details of that November evening. Revisiting the event, this time alongside the jury, the heartbreak is all the more crippling and the injustice reverberates still louder.
From closed-circuit camera footage in the gas station convenience store, the alarming popping of the bullets can be heard; the wounds are unmistakable in Davis’s X-rays and the jacket he wore that day, in plain sight alongside Dunn’s denials of first-degree murder. Conversations with his loved ones provide a more intimate glimpse into Davis’s life as a typical teenager: his friends’ priorities revolve around attracting female attention and playing basketball.
Meanwhile, Dunn’s voice breaks through the memories, as he compares himself to a rape victim and refers to Davis and his friends as “thugs.” The trial is diminished by the media as a “loud music case,” an ill-disguised term for to cover up the bigoted undertones of Dunn’s actions. Sequenced methodically without being manipulative, the effect is in equal measures gut-wrenching and infuriating. Though we know the eventual outcome even while watching the trials, the power of “3 ½ Minutes” lies in its ability to ignite those reactions once again — this time, with even greater intensity. From our new vantage point, the pain is far more palpable than when we consumed the trial as spectators distanced by the impersonal sound bytes of filtered news.
But beyond underscoring the tragedy of this singular incident, the film points to a broader issue, highlighting the gaping holes of the United States’ justice system and a timely spotlight on the enduring racism that still courses through the country’s legal and cultural veins. “3 ½ Minutes” comes at an especially appropriate moment in America’s current social climate, where a smattering of similar events confirm that the color of one’s skin remains a troubling source of conflict; as Davis’s mother tearfully remarks while awaiting the first verdict, losing would be a “slap in the face, telling a race of people that they don’t matter.”
Days after Davis was murdered, Ron Davis recalls receiving a message from shooting victim Trayvon Martin’s father: “Welcome to a club none of us want to be in.” While “Justice for Jordan” may have been served, the words — and Davis’ story — are yet another reminder of a nation that remains fractured by inequality, desperately in need of change.
“3 ½ Minutes” premiered this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival. Participant Media will release it later this year.
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