On the Friday after Thanksgiving in 2012, four African-American teens pulled into a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida, for gum and cigarettes. Michael Dunn, a middle-aged white man, and his fiancée pulled into the space next to them. Dunn complained about the loud music blasting from the teens’ car, and an argument ensued between Dunn and 17-year-old Jordan Davis that resulted in Dunn firing 10 shots. Davis was killed instantly. Both cars left the scene before police arrived.
Because of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” statute, which allows those who reasonably fear for their life to use deadly force to defend themselves without legal prosecution, Dunn believed he was not at fault in Davis’s death. He claimed to have seen Davis point a weapon at him. Because no weapon was found in the teens’ car and Davis’s friends said there wasn’t one, a jury was forced to arrive at a verdict on the murder charge (without reasonable doubt) based on who they believed was telling the truth. Race was not allowed to be discussed during the trial because Dunn was not accused of a hate crime.
Director/cinematographer Marc Silver chose to build his documentary around State of Florida vs. Michael Dunn, but it is actually the viability of broadly defined self-defense laws that is on trial in this film. Silver was able to obtain permission to record court proceedings. He also had access to the quick stop’s surveillance camera footage, police interviews with Dunn, and audio files of imprisoned Dunn’s phone conversations with his fiancée. Davis’s parents, Ron Davis and Lucia McBath, allowed Silver into their lives as they struggled through the trial, as did Davis’s friends. With the court case attracting international attention, Silver captured segments of the media coverage and public rallies outside the court house in which, following on the heels of the Trayvon Martin case, race was very much at issue.
Silver presents a surprisingly unbiased, emotionally removed accounting of the shooting and the trial. Despite damning evidence, it is easy to see how “without a reasonable doubt” creates an impossible hurtle for jurors in deciding the fate of a man’s life. Silver’s own position is made obvious by his sensitive handling of Davis’s parents’ struggle and the footage he chose to include of the victim’s friends and family photos. The soundtrack, which includes selections of moody jazz, rich in riffs of brass, helps to set a tone of inevitability.
The strength of the film lies in its ability to reveal the flaw in statutes like “Stand Your Ground,” versions of which exist in 33 states, and the undeniable presence of persistent racism. Given the same scenario, would Dunn have been so quick to pull the trigger on a carload of white teens? The film makes the answer, as well as the problem, obvious.