An American criminal trial is a drama staged for an audience of twelve. The subject matter is typically grim, and the tone of the production is invariably one of decorous sobriety, but the form is pure Theatre of the Absurd.
And so it was with the trial of Michael Dunn, a white, middle-aged man who murdered Jordan Davis, a black teenager, because he was playing his stereo too loud. Bizarre props were introduced, like a black mannequin impaled with red darts and a t-shirt encased in a clear plastic cage. The plot was circular and repetitive and premised on a twisted logic. The dialogue consisted largely of circular logic and non sequiturs. In one scene, the defendant is repeatedly questioned about how much he feared a gun which did not exist. In another, a ballistics expert is interrogated about the concept of “garbage in, garbage out.” And the underlying engine of the entire plot—racism—was removed from the drama completely, pursuant to a pre-trial motion.
“3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets” provides an impassioned and extremely moving look at the death of Jordan Davis and the trial of Michael Dunn. Where “Fruitvale Station” dramatized the senseless killing of an unarmed black man by focusing on the victim’s life, “3 ½ Minutes” deals with a similar slaying by tracing its long afterlife in the criminal justice system. Few films have so powerfully captured the emotional toll a trial takes on the victim’s family. The criminal justice system, which is so often stacked against black defendants in the name of being “tough on crime,” here seems to bend over backwards to avoid the obvious conclusion: that a white man is guilty of murdering a black man. Watching as Davis’s parents endure this ordeal is gut-wrenching.
Over half the runtime of “3 ½ Minutes” is composed of footage from the first trial of Michael Dunn. (It is hardly a spoiler to reveal that the first jury found Dunn guilty on three charges of attempted murder but deadlocked on the charge of first-degree murder, necessitating a second trial.) Silver seems to have obtained unusually free access to the trial, using multiple cameras to capture not only the witnesses and lawyers but also reaction shots from the judge, the victim’s family, and even the bailiff. Silver frequently cuts to Davis’s parents after some particularly emotional or inane or frustrating bit of testimony has just been given. Whether these shots capture actual real-time reactions or are simply inserts is unclear, but, in either case, they add another layer of wrenching absurdist drama to the trial proceedings. It is almost as if they have been condemned to relive the death of their son repeatedly until a verdict will free them from the courtroom (if not from their own memories).
In addition to the condensed reconstruction of the trial, Silver also provides interviews with Davis’s family and friends. Rather than front-loading the film with this material, Silver cuts back to it throughout, creating a call-and-response rhythm between the weirdly hermetic environment of the courtroom (in which, as the judge reminds us, decorum forbids any “emotional outbursts”) and the outside world. Watching the bizarre spectacle of a trial, it can be easy to forget that actual human lives are involved, but Davis’s parents’ outrage and disbelief at the senseless killing of their boy provides an emotional core to the film that resonates throughout the trial.
Silver provides a counterpoint to Davis’s parents in the form of audio taken from calls between Michael Dunn and his fiancee. These calls make evident what the trial could not—that Dunn is a lying, deluded racist with a jaw-dropping victim complex. “I’m the fucking victim here,” Dunn, the man who murdered an unarmed seventeen-year-old kid, at one point says. And later, “I’m the raped girl they’re blaming because I was wearing skimpy clothes.” Dunn clearly seems to believe his own victim narrative, and the depressing part about that, and the reason “3 ½ Bullets” is such a necessary film, is that the law in many ways endorses that view. Florida’s infamous “stand your ground” law muddied the waters enough to make the jury unable to come to a verdict on murder.
“3 ½ Bullets” ends with brief footage of the retrial, in which Dunn was convicted of the first-degree murder of Davis, but more resonant are images of marching protesters and Lucia McBath (Jordan’s mother) testifying before Congress. It is a useful reminder that some amount of justice may be found in the courtroom, but liberation—meaning the end of white supremacy—can only be won in the streets.
On HBO now.