Minimalism is this trial doc's greatest strength, the integrity of its filmmaker its greatest virtue.
3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets
With so many super-stylized, feels-like-fiction documentaries overpopulating arthouses and streaming services these days, it’s nice when you happen upon a doc that just gets to the damn point. Marc Silver’s 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets is an upfront, streamlined, jaw-dropping courtroom documentary with a hard-hitting message that doesn’t dance around the truth.
The film revolves around the 2012 murder of black 17-year-old Jordan Davis by Michael Dunn, a middle-aged white man. It was the night of Black Friday in Jacksonville, Florida: Dunn, with his then fiancée, Rhonda Rouer, pulled into a gas station parking lot, parking next to Jordan and his three friends, in their own car. Citing loud rap music as the inciting factor in the subsequent altercation, Dunn opened fire on the unarmed teens as they fled the scene. None involved deny any of these facts, a unique setup for a trial documentary.
There’s no epic courtroom battle for Silver to deride drama from; instead, he finds and accentuates the complexities of the fascinating subtext and subtleties that emerge as the trial unfolds. Dunn’s defense hinges on his state of mind at the time of the murder, claiming he feared for his life despite the teens’ lack of deadly weapons and the fact that the deadly shots landed as they were in retreat. Dunn’s only hope was Florida’s controversial stand-your-ground law, but his case wasn’t enough; he’s currently serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole.
Silver was able to film a large part of the trial with a multi-camera setup, which yields the most chilling footage we see. The peculiar, infuriating thing about the trial was the fact that no parties involved were permitted to suggest racism as a motivating factor in the shooting. It’s clear, though, from Silver’s footage, that race was at the front of everyone’s mind sitting in that courtroom. It’s a bizarre thing to watch people shift uncomfortably in their seats as they try their best to ignore the proverbial elephant.
The trial’s most pivotal moment comes when Rouer, recounting the events of the night, divulges information that contradicts the statements of her own fiancée. It’s the biggest breakthrough the Davis family could have hoped for. And yet, we see Jordan’s parents, Lucia McBath and Ron Davis, sitting calm and still, without so much as a roll of an eye. Their instructions were to not react to any of the courtroom proceedings with any measure of emotion, so as not to sway the jury. Knowing what we know, however, we can only imagine the magnitude of what was going in inside their heads.
It’s Silver’s clinical, gimme-the-facts presentation that gives the film its power. The nature of the injustice and the psychologies of his subjects are more than interesting enough to carry us through a full-length feature, and in recognizing that, he shows restraint. The only bits of sentimentality that peek through are in a handful of sequences in which Jordan’s parents and friends paint a picture of who he was as a young man. Though not the focus of the film, these decidedly more humanized segments give the story shape and further outline the gravity of what Dunn has done.
Minimalism is 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets‘ greatest strength, the honor of Silver and Jordan’s parents its greatest virtue. Film’s like this guide the conversation of race and acceptance that’s so defined mainstream media as of late and ensure we don’t use the memory of victims like Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown as pawns in a larger social debate. They were people, not symbols, and only with that in mind will we ever make progress.