Some documentaries have a power to take you by surprise and leave you fuming and exasperated, on the point of despair. Marc Silver’s 3/12 Minutes, Ten Bullets **** came to me out of nowhere, telling a story I’d never heard, of how, in 2012, black teenager Jordan Davis was shot dead by white software developer Michael Dunn on the forecourt of a Florida petrol station.
The shooting escalated following an argument over the loud “thug music” Jordan and his four friends were playing in their car, which they refused to turn down when Dunn asked them to do so after parking next to them on the forecourt while his girlfriend Rhonda went to get some wine.
Believing the boys had a weapon in their car they were about to turn on him, Dunn grabbed a hand gun from his glove compartment and emptied 10 bullets into the teenagers’ car, killing Jordan in the back seat.
Silver’s pulsating, cinematic documentary follows the ensuing murder trial, editing it together like the most thrilling courtroom drama, like To Kill a Mocking Bird or A Time to Kill. The viewer becomes a juror yet, unlike those in the hushed courtroom, we are allowed to express our indignation and disbelief and, believe me, I got very Gogglebox about this, shouting at the screen.
The real skill of Silver’s film lies in its access – to court records, police tapes, private conversations Dunn had with his girlfriend from jail (all of which are taped as a matter of public record, although Dunn clearly forgets this as he unleashes the most shockingly revealing racist tirades – Rhonda, who later becomes a key witness in the trial – brilliantly bats these away.)
But the heartbreaker is the access to the Davis family, the parents Ron and Lucia who deal with their son’s death with stoic determination to seek justice while coping with the trauma of grief. Their intelligence and activism is nothing less than inspiring.
Obviously what comes out of this film is a portrait of a conflicted, twisted America – a society holding itself hostage with gun laws, stand-your-ground laws and unspoken racism. It’s clear Dunn felt licensed to kill black teenagers, citing self-defence, no doubt spurred on by media coverage of cases such as the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida.
Indeed, there’s a moment where Ron Davis reveals he’d been texted by Martin’s father: “Welcome to the club no one want to be a member of.” i.e. yet another African American father was burying his unarmed son after a white man had shot them.
Enraging and all-enveloping as this film is to watch, British viewers will necessarily take some distance and ponder the aspect of guns, that increasingly mystifying, trillion dollar industry of self-armament that is escalating to the level of a craze right now.
But I’m fascinated, too, by how the casual racism of Hollywood ’s and popular culture’s depiction of black youth is also clearly feeding fear and misunderstanding, that Dunn would automatically feel threatened by the sight of four black kids in a car playing loud music. Silver takes plenty of time to talk to these kids – you just wish America would, too.
Click here to listen to my interview with Ron Davis.