Advocacy cinema at its most searingly direct, “The Trials of Darryl Hunt” is a powerful and unsettling chronicle of the 20-year struggle to free a man twice convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Straightforward in its presentation of a drama that requires no embellishment, docu sketches a quietly damning portrait of a North Carolina community divided by a horrific crime and its racially charged aftermath, with a laserlike intensity that will have auds’ blood boiling. Pic’s impact is unlikely to be diluted by the small screen when it debuts on HBO next year.
More than a decade in the making, “Trials” is a textbook example of the rewards that come about from the patient pursuit of justice — and the patient pursuit of an explosive real-life story. Director-producers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg first turned their cameras on Hunt’s case in the mid-’90s, nearly a decade after his first conviction for the 1984 rape and murder of Deborah Sykes of Winston-Salem, N.C.
In the words of Hunt’s longtime defense attorney Mark Rabil, the idea of a white woman assaulted by a black man provoked an outcry for vengeance that “evoked the image of a lynching.”
Docu reconstructs the tragedy via a nonsensationalistic weave of crime-scene photos, newspaper coverage and a recording of an extremely questionable 911 phone call that first led police to suspect the 19-year-old Hunt. Two other men with criminal records — Hunt’s friend Sammy Mitchell and the 911 caller, Johnny Gray — were also on the police’s radar, but it was Hunt who was prosecuted in 1985, with a death-penalty recommendation, after refusing to testify against Mitchell.
The first trial and all its attendant missteps — lack of physical evidence, unreliable eyewitnesses (one with ties to the Ku Klux Klan), botched police lineups, the selection of an almost all-white jury — are discussed in sharp, comprehensible detail through interviews with Rabil; Larry Little, a Winston-Salem city official and friend of Hunt’s; and Hunt himself, who always maintained his innocence, even turning down a plea bargain.
Convicted and sentenced to life in prison, Hunt won a second trial in 1989, but was again convicted. The case was closed until 1994, when a DNA test proved the semen taken from Sykes’ body was not Hunt’s — evidence that was deemed inconclusive. It was at this time that Stern, Sundberg and cinematographer William Rexer II began filming the court proceedings and the defense’s continual efforts to exonerate Hunt, resulting in some of the pic’s most spontaneous and devastating moments. (Later footage was shot on DV by John Foster, Alan Jacobsen and Shannon Kennedy.)
Appeals to both the North Carolina and U.S. Supreme Courts over the next decade came to naught, leaving Rabil, Little and Hunt’s other supporters the difficult task of finding the real perpetrator.
As much as racism played a role in Hunt’s scapegoating, the picture that emerges of the Winston-Salem police department (which declined to be interviewed) is one of institutional negligence and incompetence rather than pure discrimination. Yet while its indictments are enough to shatter anyone’s faith in the system, “Trials” is also subtly optimistic, acknowledging the persistent heroism of those who worked on Hunt’s behalf.
While their work is mostly seamless and unobtrusive, Stern and Sundberg aren’t afraid to go for the viewers’ emotions at key moments, using montage, slow-mo and voiceover with dramatic flair. Though it’s trotted out once too often, Paul Brill’s score is memorably chilling, sounding notes of purest dread.