Review: ‘Death of Two Sons’

Micah Schaffer's docu juxtaposes the deaths of a Guinean in America and an American in Guinea. The Guinean in "Death of Two Sons" was Amadou Diallo, gunned down by four policemen with 41 bullets, and the American was Peace Corps volunteer Jesse Thyne. Though partly financed by HBO, this striking docu still lacks a distributor.

Micah Schaffer’s moving, stunningly shot docu juxtaposes the deaths of a Guinean in America and an American in Guinea. The Guinean in “Death of Two Sons” was Amadou Diallo, senselessly gunned down by four New York City policemen with 41 bullets. The American was Peace Corps volunteer Jesse Thyne, who lived with Amadou’s family in Guinea and died in a car crash there. The two men never met, but their destinies are intertwined in this unique film. Though partly financed by HBO, this striking docu still lacks a distributor.

Helmer Schaffer never allows the exposition of the interviewees to overwhelm the visual aspects of the storytelling as Amadou’s extended family describes him as a well-traveled “child of privilege” who spoke several languages and took over as man-of-the-house after his parents’ separation. As Amadou’s nearest and dearest talk about his about-to-be-realized dream of making enough money in America to attend college there, their expressions and gestures make the immigrant victim come alive to viewers.

These same Diallo family members next tell of Jesse and his willingness to become part of their community. He fasted on Ramadan with them and spoke their language. Jesse translated Amadou’s funeral for American journalists.

Clearly, in the minds of the villagers of Diountou, Amadou and Jesse’s deaths were mystically conjoined, a connection the film maintains by artfully intercutting between aesthetically matched milieus.

Jesse’s California family is mainly represented by his father, Rick, whose generosity spiritually allies him to the indomitable Kadiatou Diallo, Amadou’s mother. Though the film contains TV coverage of the spontaneous protests that arose after Amadou’s death, and many of his kinsmen weigh in on the injustice of the absence of punishment meted out to his killers (in contrast, the Guinean taxi driver whose speeding contributed to the accident killing Jesse was sentenced to three years in jail), it is Jesse’s father who delivers the most telling political indictment: He states his son’s death was a tragedy, but Amadou’s was also a travesty caused by the “worst of our armed, racist, hostile culture.”

Pic freely intercuts between New York, California and Guinea, doing full justice to contrasts in the colors, rhythms and zeitgeists of each location, perhaps even editorializing a bit through pictorial means.

Cary Fukunaga’s superlative 24p video lensing depicts New York City as a cold, bleached-out site where distinguished African-American statesmen are led off in handcuffs while the four policemen responsible for the questionable shooting get off scot-free.

In contrast, both California and Guinea are shown as warm, family-friendly home places, the rituals of the candle-filled church where Jesse’s father was a pastor mirrored by the candle-lit Muslim rites in Diountou.

Death of Two Sons


An HBO Life Through Your Lens Program/Harvard U. Dept. of African and Afro-American Studies/AOL-Time Warner/Two Sons Films production. Produced by Alrick Brown, Micah Schaffer. Co-producer, Gabriel Noble. Directed by Micah Schaffer.


Camera (color, DV), Cary Fukunaga; editors, Dena Mermelstein, Martha Skolnik; music supervisor, Matt Rocker; sound, Alrick Brown, Scott Jones. Reviewed at Urbanworld Film Festival, New York, June 24, 2006. Running time: 64 MIN.


Kadiatou Diallo, Mamadou Korka Diallo, Rick Thyne, Modi Oury Diallo, Alpha Omar Diallo, Jean Simmons. (French, English, Pulaar dialogue)

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