The 2012 murder of unarmed black teenager Jordan Davis—the less famous of the two “Stand Your Ground” murder trials in recent Florida history—gets the procedural treatment in Marc Silver’s 3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets. The documentary’s most fixed image is that of Davis’s killer, 45-year-old software developer Michael Dunn, in court, hearing the testimonies against him and reciting his case that Davis and his friends brandished a shotgun at Dunn after the older man told them to turn their music down, prompting the older man to open fire with his own concealed weapon. While the case for the teenagers’ weapon grows weaker and weaker, Silver intercuts peeks at his would-be antagonist’s line of thinking with audio recordings from prison, where Dunn’s fiancée—whose testimony would ultimately deliver the deathblow to the case—tells him, “You’re a spirit that’s just not meant to be caged, a man of water, a man of life that’s just not to be put in a cage…” All Dunn can reply is, “Right.”
Alongside glossy cinematography and an elegant (but nonetheless over-insistent) musical score, Silver’s film is dense with these kinds of details, routinely pointing back to the present moment of paranoid sousveillance. The filmmaker deploys aspects of the evidence-discovery process in a way that can only be called “cinematic,” juxtaposing security-cam footage from the gas station where Dunn shot Davis with the teenager’s friends’ courtroom testimonies. The mystery is as much what happened? as it is how could this happen?, and the film shrewdly picks out the smaller narratives woven into the trial: Dunn’s projection of racism onto Davis as a means of both self-exoneration and -victimization, the conflation of black teenagers as “thugs” (one of Davis’s friends offers that “thug” is “the new n-word”), and the struggle of Davis’s separated parents to keep their composure during the trial’s agonizing months.
While Davis’s mother, Lucia McBath, will go on to testify in Washington, D.C. against “Stand Your Ground” face to face with Lindsay Graham and Ted Cruz, his father Ron appears troubled less by the posthumous facts revealed about his son—namely that he escalated the argument with Dunn, and that he enjoyed loud rap music—than the racism refracted back onto Jordan and, thus, him. His overriding sense of failure at having protected Jordan is counterposed with Dunn’s insistence that he was protecting his fiancée, attributing to the teenage Davis a phantom danger that’s identical to those alleged by Darren Wilson and George Zimmerman. 3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets suffices beautifully as a chronicle of grief and injustice, but even better for its barbed inquiry into this particular notion of “self-defense,” enabled by a culture of quotidian racism, made and perpetuated de jure by the state. It brings home with resounding oomph that our mistake has been treating these assailants’ manias as exceptional, when this particular philosophy of white rage has been long-since-normalized.