On November 23, 2012, Michael Dunn, a middle-aged white man, shot and killed black 17-year-old Jordan Russell Davis at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida, for the most absurd of reasons: because Davis and his friends were playing loud music.
Nearly three years later, the case is at the center of the documentary 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets, which focuses on Davis’ life before and during the attack, and how Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground self-defense law played into Dunn’s subsequent murder trial. (The defendant told authorities he fired into the teenager’s vehicle because he thought he saw a weapon; investigators recovered no evidence of firearms or other such items from the scene.)
“I got attacked and I fought back because I didn’t want to be a victim, and now I’m in trouble?” Dunn complains on screen in a taped phone call from jail. “I refused to be a victim, and now I’m incarcerated.”
Director Marc Silver (Who Is Dayani Crystal?) says the complicated intersection of the legal system, white perceptions of black criminality and our nation’s fraught racial history sparked his fascination in the case. “I was really interested in this event that had happened in this tiny amount of time,” he says. “On the one level, through the court system, you would understand what happened during those three-and-a-half minutes in a very pragmatic way. Then [you have] what really happened in those moments on a bigger, more conceptual level.”
The film came about after producer Minette Nelson read Paul Solotaroff’s 2013 Rolling Stone feature about Davis’ death and the history of Stand Your Ground laws, and approached Silver with the idea for the project. The documentarian agreed almost immediately, flying down to Jacksonville in the summer of 2013 to meet Davis’ parents and begin filming. During the nearly nine months of filming, it quickly became clear how this specific incident mirrored other episodes of violence against black Americans — notably the Trayvon Martin case, in which another unarmed black 17-year-old was fatally shot for his perceived “thuggishness” and criminality. (The teen was on his way back from buying candy and iced tea at a local store.)
“As we were recording, there were all these other cases over young black men getting killed for similar reasons — ideas of fear and perception and how are certain people conditioned to have that fear,” Silver says. “Then obviously that answered what really happened during that three-and-a-half minutes. I found that we had this potentially very interesting film where you could look at the forensics of what happened on one level, but then metaphorically what was really going on in America.”
A few months before the trial, Silver and his production team worked out an arrangement that allowed them to film from the rear of the court chambers. One of the conditions the director had to accept, however was that he couldn’t film the jury – doing so could result in a mistrial, the state warned. But despite that limitation, 3 1/2 Minutes manages to place the audience in the jurors’ seats; for much of the film, the audience remains insulated from the commentary and reportage happening outside the courtroom walls.
When Silver’s lens ventures outside the courtroom, it isn’t to retell the details of that night, but rather to help viewers gain a more intimate understanding of an individual who is unable to tell his own story. In one sequence, he interviews Davis’ friends, Leland Brunson and Tevin Thompson, who recall fond memories of Davis – not as a victim, but as a person who, among other things, liked dressing well. “He’d come on the [basketball] court and I’d be like, ‘Man, he looks a-maz-ing. He looks like he’s going to dunk on everybody,'” Thompson jokes as Brunson clanks a jump shot in the foreground. “Then he shoots the ball and he’s the worst player you ever will see.”
To Davis’ parents, Lucia McBath and Ron Davis, their son was a churchgoing, well-liked teenager with a penchant for sports, chasing girls and trap music. At times, Jordan could be petulant, boisterous and defiant. But he was also a great swimmer and an artful prankster with an infectious smile and endless charisma. “He was very lighthearted, very open-minded, very inquisitive,” McBath says.
Ron Davis drives home the point that his son is more than the victim we see portrayed in the news. “For parents and for loved ones who know Jordan, we see something different than what the audience can see,” he admits wiping away tears.
“The thing that hurts us so deeply is that our boy was just being himself and he died over his love of music,” McBath says. “He died over just being himself. Our children can’t even be who they are.”