When Michael Dunn murdered 17-year-old Jordan Davis in the parking lot of Gate gas station in Jacksonville, Fla., on Nov. 23, 2012, the bullets not only ripped through Jordan’s body but also tore open the hearts of his parents, Ron Davis and Lucia McBath, before finally slicing through the post-racial lie America pretends to believe about itself.
Director Marc Silver (Who Is Dayani Cristal?) drills into that volatile intersection where the personal crashes into the political with his award-winning film 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets.
Silver masterfully weaves the narratives of Jordan and Dunn—who is now 48 and serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for the murder of Jordan and the attempted murders of his three friends, Tevin Thompson, Tommie Stornes and Leland Brunson—crisscrossing between the two until they ultimately collide at Gate gas station.
The details of the fatal incident, sparked because Dunn couldn’t bear the disrespect of the black teenager blasting his “thug music” in the vehicle next to him, are well-known. The pacing of this film, however, explores in intimate detail the devastation that Jordan’s death leaves behind.
Yes, we see the strength of his parents. African-American parents who’ve had their children ripped from them by racists unable and unwilling to recognize their humanity are always praised for their strength when overcoming the unimaginable. But it is the undiluted, backbreaking grief of Ron Davis and Lucia McBath that guides this film. Their vulnerability is palpable as they grapple with the fragility not only of their own son’s life in the face of white rage and bigotry but also of black life as a whole in the United States.
Throughout 3 1/2 Minutes, the film painstakingly illustrates the powerful words of Neely Fuller Jr.: “If you do not understand white supremacy, what it is and how it works, everything else you know will only confuse you.”
From the barrel of Michael Dunn’s gun to the courtroom in Florida to the Senate Judiciary Committee (pdf)—where McBath faced down Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who defended the right to bear arms instead of a black child’s right to live—3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets exposes the quagmire of white supremacy that traps African Americans in its grip. During the film, Davis openly wrestles with that confusion and cynicism in the face of the respectability politics that failed him. With tears streaming, unchecked, down his face, he cries, “It wasn’t like he was in a bad neighborhood. He’s five minutes from home; it wasn’t late at night … he was with his good friends, all good boys … and I couldn’t protect him.”
The absence of race from the courtroom was glaring, particularly because Dunn never backed down from his assertion that Jordan had a weapon. His attorney, in fact, continued to argue that the phantom weapon Dunn claimed to have seen was never found because of shoddy police work.
According to a 2001 study, “Prejudice and Perception: The Role of Automatic and Controlled Processes in Misperceiving a Weapon” (pdf), “violent traits such as hostility, aggression and criminality are consistently included in White Americans’ stereotypes of Black Americans. To the extent that guns are semantically associated with violence and aggression, the race of the subject may influence White Americans’ judgments of what is and what is not a weapon.”
Still, although Dunn was a textbook racist who carried his explicit bias against African Americans on his shoulders, a jury could not decide during his first trial whether he was guilty of the murder of Jordan Davis. Because of an accepted perception that black equals danger, Jordan’s humanity was placed on trial, not Dunn’s criminality.
In one prison phone call to his then-fiancee, Rhonda Rouer, Dunn breaks a new record in pathologizing blackness. In under a minute, he talks about sagging pants, “no dads” in African-American households and what he considers to be African Americans’ disrespect for authority. He even goes so far as to say that he does not accept “one-half of 1 percent” of the blame in Jordan’s death, stating in an increasingly unhinged tone that by killing Jordan, he may have saved someone else’s life.
This is the America that black children must navigate day in and day out. There is no safety net. The embodiment of blackness and the narrative that this country has constructed around black bodies leaves them vulnerable at every turn, making it possible for archival footage of the anatomy of a 21st-century lynching to make it to the big screen.
With 3 1/2 Minutes, Marc Silver has amplified the voices of Jordan Davis and so many other black men, women and children murdered in this country simply for being black. Although viewers will more than likely experience a cathartic release when Dunn is eventually found guilty of Jordan’s murder, Silver doesn’t allow that sleight of hand to mimic posthumous justice. Viewers will leave this film mourning Jordan and mourning with his parents. They will leave knowing that even as this “post-racial” country pats itself on the back for finally getting one right, there are, to paraphrase a poignant moment in the film, so many more rivers to cross.
In the end, through the journey of Davis and McBath’s tragic initiation into activism, past the court cases and over the political posturing, viewers of 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets are allowed to sit beside a father searching for answers. We see Davis traverse his son’s path and walk a mile in his shoes. We see him connect with Jordan’s best friends, Tommie, Leland and Tevin, as they tell him about his son’s enthusiasm and determination. We see him laugh as he shares the Jordan he knows and they share the Jordan they know, each person searching for him in the face of the other.
Ultimately, in the most gripping moment of the film, we see Jordan’s father bask in his son’s unfettered joy. We see his reverence for his humanity and his thankfulness for his life. Perhaps most important, we see him accept that in his son’s final moments, Jordan was bursting free from a narrative that demands black silence in the face of self-proclaimed white authority. And as father and son connect across time and space, we can almost hear Ron Davis’ heart beat to the rhythm of Jordan’s last words:
“F—k that. Turn that s—t up.”
Editor’s note: Participant Media’s 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Award for Social Impact. HBO subsequently licensed the film’s U.S. television rights. It will open theatrically June 19 in New York City, followed by a national release.