3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets

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Faced with the mug shot-like poster of 3 ½’s main subject Jordan Davis, I was both anticipating and dreading watching this film. I have a love/hate relationship with true crime – the stories are gripping and ignite a voyeuristic thrill, but also inevitably centre around real tragedy. It can be a bit much for an empathetic sissy such as myself to stomach if not in the right frame of mind.

This doco is courteous enough to ease the viewer in gently, opening with Davis’ parents Ron Davis and Lucia McBath speaking quite light-heartedly about him. However, it becomes pretty clear pretty quickly that the son they speak of is dead. And then a little more is revealed about how that happened – how the teenage African American was shot and killed by Michael Dunn, a middle-aged white man, over a dispute at a gas station. It’s the kind of story we’ve gotten strangely used to.

Straight out of the gate, the film is compelling, drawing the viewer into more and more interviews, archive material and mostly, courtroom footage. The pacing is impeccable. At the beginning, Dunn is being portrayed as a villain, there is a lot said about him, without really giving him or his supporters much screentime. This led me to play devil’s advocate against the given narrative and against my own instincts, and I wanted to hear more of his side of the story. Moments later, I was watching heartfelt testimonies from his loved ones. This pattern is repeated throughout the film, anticipation and pay off, regarding all the various pieces that make up the case.

While watching, I think I got an idea of what the jurors would have been going through, disorientated by the battle of truth ping-pong playing before them. Hints of information, followed by contradicting information and revealing interviews all play off against each other, and off whatever personal biases or ideals you bring to the table as the viewer. You hear about “good boys” who then according to someone else have a criminal record. Incriminating pieces of information that could well have been fabricated after all.

Now and then we get to step out of the courtroom to be reminded that the case has gotten a lot of attention, people are talking about it everywhere. Beautiful shots of the area peppered with audio from talkback radio call-ins – “I’m not racist, but…” kind of calls. There’s a lot of talk about race and whether the altercation was racially charged.

The significance of racial prejudice is made clear, but it sometimes felt that this general overarching theme is given screen time at the cost of fleshing out details of the case. Questions arise, some loose ends and unsure specificities remain unaddressed, even if we do get a good general idea of how and why things played out. But that’s debatebly a directorial decision more than an editing flaw. Any lingering uncertainties can be chased up with obsessive Googling (you should see my post-watch search history), but it’s not often a delicate issue like racial tension is dealt with as starkly and sensitively as this.

The DVD release caters to those hungry for more info – extras include police interviews not only with Michael Dunn, but also with his then-fiancee, Rhonda Rouer, who turns out to be a key witness. Along with a 40 minute Q&A with Ron Davis and director Marc Silver, the bonus content makes the DVD worth checking out even if you’ve already seen the feature by other means.

3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets comes across more as a case study in the subject of US racial conflict than an in-depth real life CSI episode. It makes its agenda clear without being flippant or dismissive of Dunn’s side, and without being inflammatory or overly political. A must-watch for anyone interested in the true crime genre or the current social politics of the US.

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