“3 1/2 Minutes” rivetingly chronicles the murder trial of Michael Dunn, who fired gunshots into a car of four black teenagers in Jacksonville, Fla., killing one, during an altercation over their playing rap music loudly. The tragedy struck many as another encapsulation of double standards in the American popular consciousness (not to mention the police and justice systems), wherein African-Americans are automatically considered more “threatening” and their deaths more justified regardless of their actions (or lack of weaponry). Marc Silver’s docu wisely lets that complex issue play out in the viewer’s mind without debating it onscreen; this vivid case, in which cameras had full courtroom access, requires no outside commentary for its larger social relevance to be glaringly clear. The Sundance prizewinner is a natural for appropriate broadcast slots, with modest theatrical exposure also possible.
The day after Thanksgiving in 2012, four middle-class high schoolers stopped at a convenience store — in a “safe” neighborhood, despite Jacksonville’s rep as Florida’s murder capital — to pick up gum and cigarettes. Pulling up alongside them in the parking lot was middle-aged white visitor Dunn, who’d just attended his son’s wedding. (Surprisingly little mentioned in the footage here is the question of how judgement-impaired he was by having drunk several cocktails at the event.) While his fiancee, Rhonda Rouer, went inside to purchase a bottle of wine, Dunn objected to the teens’ loudly blasting “thug music” (his words). The other driver briefly turned the offending sounds off; but passenger Jordan Davis insisted it be turned back on, complaining he was sick of people like Dunn telling him what to do.
From that point, testimonies vary as to what exactly was said. Dunn, claiming later that he felt mortally threatened, withdrew a gun from his glovebox and began firing at the teens’ vehicle even as they frantically tried to drive away. He fired 10 shots, quite miraculously hitting only one of the kids. When his girlfriend returned, he offered no explanation and didn’t wait for or call police. He simply drove them to their hotel, then back home the next day. He claimed he was certain he saw a gun brandished, and that he told her so at the time. But as a clearly very nervous witness on the stand later on, Rouer admitted he’d never mentioned any such thing. Nor did police find any evidence whatsoever that the teens (who only fled as far as a different part of the parking lot, stopping as soon they realized Davis had been badly wounded) ever had, showed or discarded a weapon, or even anything that might have looked like one.
Though neither of them is interviewed by the filmmakers, Dunn’s jailhouse calls to Rouer are heard here, and they do not flatter: He continually, whiningly emphasizes the injustice of his being punished when he is (to his mind) so clearly the situation’s victim. (While this sounds sincere enough — however misguided — the defendant’s courtroom behavior raises doubts, as he sits blandly poker-faced through most of the trial, then delivers what looks like a suspiciously dry-eyed performance of “sobbing” distress under oath.)
Presumably, Dunn’s family and supporters declined to participate in the documentary. While news reports are glimpsed, we don’t see any of the rhetoric that invariably now gets raised by conservative pundits and others in such cases, suggesting that the unarmed black individual surely must have done something or other to “deserve” being slain. (Needless to say, these commentators never ask why demonstrably armed and dangerous white persons so often get successfully apprehended by police without a shot being fired.)
It’s quite enough to hear Dunn’s attorney try to raise reasonable doubt by inferring that his client was justifiably terrified by four middle-class African-American youths — none of whom had any criminal history — playing rap music and perhaps mouthing off at him. (As one radio call-in-show listener asks, who would think to defend a black adult who panicked when faced with four white teens playing loud country/western music?) The case against Dunn might seem open-and-shut. But the fact that it isn’t, in our racially divisive sociopolitical climate, is underlined by a frustrating, inexplicable jury decision that results in a partial mistrial. Issues raised on the periphery but left to a different documentary for deeper exploration are the ever-murky applications of Florida’s “stand your ground” law, and the slipperiness in general of defining self-defense and justifiable and excusable homicide in states where the civilian gun owner’s rights are perilously broad.
Silver (“Who is Dayani Cristal?”) keeps the focus outside the courtroom primarily on Davis’ parents, who see prosecution as their only hope of some closure in losing their only child. Their grief, bafflement and attempt to maintain some hope in the justice system lends “3 1/2 Minutes” considerable poignancy.
Though there are a few odd gaps in the gripping pic, and/or perhaps in the trial itself (why don’t we hear Davis’ friends confirm or deny Dunn’s accusations of verbal threats when they’re called as witnesses?), the assembly is tight and accomplished on all levels.