When I was a teenager, I’d get together with my girlfriends and drive places. We’d drive to the mall to buy new clothes and flirt at the food court, or to the movie theater in Union City. We’d laugh, argue, listen to Nelly and Aaliyah on the car stereo and sing along to the loud music as bass made the car vibrate. We were teen girls with lip gloss and rebellion. We didn’t want to be told what to do. Jordan Davis was also this way. In 2012, the 17-year-old lost his life because a man, Michael Dunn, saw him as a violent, Black thug.
New film 3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets, directed by Marc Silver, documents the teenage car ride that ended in a flurry of bullets. After Davis refused to turn down the music in the car he was riding in with three friends, Michael Dunn shot into the car ten times. Through courtroom footage of the ensuing trial, interviews with Davis’s family and friends, and beautifully-framed wide shots of the Florida landscape, the film chronicles the aftermath of the murder. The case brought Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” laws into sharp focus, as Dunn’s attorney tried to prove that his actions were justified under the law.
But what is the justification for shooting at four unarmed teens who stopped at the gas station to get gum so their breath wouldn’t stink when talking to girls that night? It’s these human details that provide an empathetic lens into the teenage life of Davis and form a clear contrast to the way Dunn characterizes him in his police interviews and phone calls home from jail. To him, Davis was a lost product of the MTV culture—angry, dangerous, and without a father. The film is framed with audio of Dunn’s interviews. At times, it becomes sickening to listen to, but it’s necessary to illustrate the racial prejudice in Dunn’s perception of Davis.
The film finds its biggest strengths in the quiet moments with Davis’s parents as they attempt to move through the grief of losing their only child. Davis’s father goes swimming, letting the water wash over his sadness, while Davis’s mother, Lucia McBath, sits on a Florida beach watchings the tide and molding a sand castle. The associations between water, grief, and healing are beautiful here. Also beautiful are the glimpses into Davis’ life—how he couldn’t play basketball and his last visit with his girlfriend at the mall that night. I wanted more of this and less of Dunn on the court stand feigning sympathy for his fiancé, who was unharmed in the shooting.
The courtroom footage in the film provides an anchor into the ways Dunn’s defense team built an argument around the Stand Your Ground laws and Dunn’s right to self-defense, but it does little to bring us into Davis life and into the tragedy of his murder. In the end, the film is a powerful statement on perception. In this case, perceptions that were built on age-old stereotypes and hatred. There’s a way that these perceptions and narratives become toxic, giving way to delusions that seem to justify murder of specific groups of people. In Dunn’s mind, Black teenagers listening to rap music, laughing, and yelling become thugs, while he probably envisioned himself a rugged vigilante, enforcing justice. It’s worth noting that if this were a fictional Hollywood film, that vigilante narrative is probably how this story would be framed. But it’s not. Instead, this is a documentary based on real-life tragedy, so here Davis is clearly seen as a 17-year-old boy who liked to listen to loud music and dance in the car, like I did. Like many teens do. He had parents who loved him, and who will always miss the music of his smile.
3 1/2 Minutes won a won a special jury award for social impact when it screened at Sundance and now opens nationwide this Friday.
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Nijla Mu’min is a writer and filmmaker the East Bay Area. She writes films and writes about film. She is currently developing her first feature film, Noor.