Michael Dunn fired ten bullets into teenager Jordan Davis's car, killing him in the process
In the past few years, the Black Lives Matter movement has grown exponentially, though this is unfortunately linked to the increase in unwarranted and prejudice-driven violence against minorities.
Some may argue that this is also linked to the increase in media attention given to the phenomenon, though it is an issue that has always existed, and is pertinent and pressing regardless of the public spotlight cast on the it. The activist movement, originating and spread through social media, targets injustice against the African American community, particularly in relation to prejudice in the American law enforcement and criminal justice systems, such as racial profiling and police brutality against black people.
3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets, which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, is a documentary about one such case of racism and violence. It details the aftermath of the shooting of Jordan Davis, particularly in relation to Florida’s stand-your-ground law, which authorises citizens to defend themselves against threats or perceived threats of danger, and effectively gives them the power to use force or violence if they perceive that they face an imminent threat of serious bodily harm or death. The subjectivity of “perceived threat” often complicates legal proceedings after the fact, and sometimes results in what some believe to be injustice within the criminal justice system.
Davis was killed in November 2012, the same year as the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, the latter of which was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges the following year. Davis was fatally shot at a petrol station in Jacksonville, Florida, by Michael Dunn, a 45-year-old man visiting the city. 17-year-old Davis and his companions were allegedly confronted by Dunn over the volume of music being played in their vehicle.
After a verbal disagreement, Dunn apparently responded by reaching for a handgun from his vehicle and shooting ten rounds into the teenagers’ car, killing Davis in the process.
The film, which runs just over an hour and a half, focuses on the legal proceedings after the shooting, especially what came to be known as the ‘loud music’ trial. In the initial trial in early 2014, Dunn had cited self-defence, particularly in reference to Florida’s stand-your-ground law. While he was convicted on three other counts of attempted second-degree murder (in relation to Davis’ three other companions) and one count of firing into a vehicle, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict on the charge of first-degree murder for the shooting of Davis. In a retrial later in the same year, Dunn was found guilty for first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment with no parole, on top of his sentences for the previous convictions.
The film is carefully and delicately crafted, with clips of interviews with Davis’ parents interlaced with home videos from Davis’ childhood, interwoven with excerpts from Dunn’s jury trial, with eyewitness accounts painting a vivid picture of the events leading up to the tragedy. The anguish of Davis’ parents is evident, from his father’s sideways glare at Dunn in the courtroom, to both mother and father trying to keep their composure while retelling the short time after Jordan’s death when Ron, Jordan’s father, had to identify Jordan’s body and was told he could not touch his son’s body as it was evidence in an ongoing investigation.
Throughout the film, you see Davis’ friends and family struggle in the aftermath of his death. As a viewer, you may try to keep an objective mind while watching the film — and certainly, no-narration documentaries often tell one side of the story through carefully selected and edited clips. However, the filmmakers do a good job in presenting a poignant picture of the incident (as well as a deeply unflattering portrait of Dunn, though much of this is painted by his own words and actions), and you will definitely find yourself picking sides as you journey through slightly over an hour and a half of tragedy, anger, and confusion.
Dunn’s lack of remorse is especially evident in excerpts of his calls from prison to his fiancée Rhonda Rouer.
In one clip, he compares himself to a rape victim who is blamed for her ordeal because she was wearing “skimpy clothes” — “Like I’m the victim that’s being blamed,” he says. It evokes some kind of anger, at least to someone with knowledge of the context and background info of the trial. You cannot help but wonder if Dunn genuinely believes he is the victim in this situation, more so than the young boy who was robbed of his life at the age of seventeen for, essentially, just being a teenager.
The implicit racism embedded within Dunn’s thinking is disconcerting at times. At one point, Dunn tells Rouer that despite being told by the police that Davis and his friends did not have police records, he just knew they were “bad”. “I Youtube-d videos of these guys,” he continues. “They’re all gangster rappers.”
Tevin Thompson, one of the boys in the group, tells the camera, “People portray us as gang members and bad kids. If they hung out with us a day, they would’ve known who the real people were.” He goes on to say, “We lived in the suburbs… We’re talking about the everyday struggle, you know, what teenagers go through. No gas money, so you can’t get picked up.” His friend Leland Brunson, also part of the group at the petrol station, chimes in, “No money, period, as a teenager is just awful.” The last teenager in the group, Tommie Stornes, appears only very briefly in the trial footage segments of the film
For all purposes, the other boys seem like average teenagers.
At one point, Thompson is seen smiling shyly as he describes Davis’ relationship with “Aliyah,” Davis’ girlfriend at the time. And that’s really what they are, at the end of the day. Not “gangsters” or “thugs” as Dunn seems to think. Just regular, normal teenagers.
The film explores the issues of race and power embedded within the incident. At the risk of nullifying my own objectivity and passing my own judgement, the film does a good job at painting Dunn as a self-righteous, almost deluded self-appointed martyr. At one point during a recorded collect call, Dunn tells Rouer, “I’m not racist. They’re racist.” He says it with so much conviction that you cannot help but feel disconcerted at how deeply he believes this to be the truth.
While watching news coverage of the trial on television, Davis’ mother, Lucia McBath, tearfully says, “If we don’t get a guilty verdict then as a minority, it’s just like another slap in the face and constantly telling a race of people that they don’t matter.”
On a deeper level, and this is not to make excuses for Dunn’s transgressions, the film provokes some analysis on modern racism from a macro standpoint. There is a hint at trying to understand prejudice, so that we can change it. While it is not implicitly highlighted within the film, I was personally prompted to consider ideas of social conditioning, cultural ignorance and lack of education. To me, the core of the issue is not simply the ignorance of the prejudiced, but the systematic failure to try and rectify it. As Davis’ father says in the film, “People of his ilk are conditioned, and they don’t even know they’re conditioned.”
The film also strives to highlight the stand-your-ground law, particularly the devastating repercussions that can happen when it is abused or not used for the purposes it was designed for. McBath herself is a strong critic of the law and has been fighting to change it. She says, “There’s something perversely wrong when a nation callously condones killing innocent people, and they think that it’s their right, just because they’ve been empowered by a gun.” In the wake of devastating tragedies such as the murder of both Davis and Trayvon Martin, many are inclined to agree.
Towards the end of the film, Dunn walks into the courtroom for his retrial, handcuffed and clad in an orange jumper. After dishing out his sentence, judge Russell Healey tells him, “Mr Dunn, your life is effectively over.” He goes on to say, “This tragedy should and could have been prevented.”
Lest you begin to feel sorry for Dunn, the filmmakers make it a point to present him in all his unrepentant glory. “It’s absurd, everything is absurd,” he tells Rouer. “It’s like, I’m the fucking victim here. It’s 100% on Jordan.” Here, Dunn pauses before he says Jordan’s name, as if perhaps he is trying remember the name of the young boy whose life he took. He repeats, “A hundred percent,” then goes on to say, “I don’t even take a half a percent.”
The film ends with a haunting clip of Davis’ father watching a video of Jordan and his friends listening and dancing to music in a car. You see him bopping along to the music, then begin to wipe tears from his eyes as he starts to weep. Though the ending text card of the film reminds you of the sentences Dunn has piled on top of each other, you cannot help but feel like maybe justice has not been served in its entirety. At the end of the day, two parents lost their innocent son, and there is nothing in the law that can ever fully redress that.