For a brief period in late 2012, it was front page news from coast to coast: on ‘Black Friday’, the biggest shopping day of the year, a white man had fired ten shots at four African-American teenagers in a Florida parking lot. Before long, of course, the story was eclipsed by other tales of America’s festering racism problem – but for a little while it was unavoidable.
Now the case is reexamined in 3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets, a new documentary opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, July 24. Directed by Marc Silver and featuring extensive courtroom footage, it’s a wrenching examination of perception, truth, and a culture steeped in frequently invisible but unavoidable discrimination and a nation awash in guns, guns, guns.
The basic facts are incontestable: a middle-aged Caucasian named Michael Dunn pulled into a parking space outside a Jacksonville convenience store early in the evening of Nov. 23, 2012. While his fianceé, Rhonda Rouer, went inside to purchase a bottle of wine, Dunn engaged in a heated conversation with the occupants of an adjacent vehicle about the volume of their music.
The ‘conversation’ culminated in a shooting incident in which Dunn fired ten bullets from his legally purchased and registered handgun into the car, leading to the death of 17-year old Jordan Davis. Dunn then left the scene, returned to his hotel room (where he ordered a pizza) and failed to notify police of the shooting — only to be arrested a few days later after an eyewitness reported his license-plate number. He went on trial in early 2014.
Of course, precisely what happened — and who said what, and when — would prove contentious points during the ensuing legal proceedings. Dunn’s deeply upset fianceé claimed he’d complained to her immediately after parking about the loud ‘thug music’ emanating from the adjacent vehicle, while Dunn himself claimed he had referred to it as ‘rap crap’. Dunn asserted he’d seen a gun in the neighboring car and had told Rouer about it; she denied he’d ever discussed feeling threatened, let alone suggested there’d been a gun (or any other weapon) in view.
3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets makes it clear that Dunn’s defense team learned some important lessons from the George Zimmerman trial that had concluded in the defendant’s favor a year earlier. If Dunn could establish that he was merely ‘standing his ground’ and defending himself perhaps he, too, would be acquitted.
His words, however, betrayed Dunn at every turn. In phone conversations with Rouer recorded from jail, he repeatedly relied on some of the hoariest — and most persistent — racial tropes to defend himself. Where were the kids’ fathers, he mused? Why won’t they pull their pants up? By golly, quoth Dunn, “I’m not the racist – THEY’RE the racists”.
If Silver’s film suffers from a weakness, it might be its ‘just the facts ma’am’ approach to the story – the director makes no attempt to place Jordan Davis’s death in context or make characterizations about American society. On the other hand, that’s probably not necessary: so ubiquitous have such tales become in recent times that the audience can easily do it themselves.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.
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