The toxic paranoia poisoning American life is on display in 3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets, a fine and timely documentary about the 2012 killing of black youth Jordan Davis in a convenience store parking lot by Michael Dunn, a middle-aged white man who believed that the 17-year-old student meant to do him harm—and later that Florida’s infamous Stand Your Ground laws would protect him in court, as they did George Zimmerman. The outcome of the case is now a matter of public record, but Marc Silver’s film, which was mostly shot over the course of the trial and features plenty of footage of the proceedings, still bristles with tension and uncertainty. Not about Dunn’s culpability, which is established early on and never really rebutted—even by his own defense team. The question here is whether a statewide legal system that seems currently designed to offer unrepentant killers an escape route can itself stand up to any sort of sustained cross-examination.
In court, Dunn’s lawyer claimed that his client had good reason to think that Davis, who was out driving with three of his friends, was dangerous—a characterization that had more to do with the color of the victim’s skin than anything he said or did. At the time, the hook for local media was the hip-hop tracks being blasted by Davis and his friends at the time of the incident, which clarified the racial undertones of the event; Dunn characterized the music as “thug music” and “rap crap,” phrases which draped a paper-thin veil over a nakedly racist worldview. While Silver doesn’t go so far as to turn Dunn into a stand-in for White America, he suggests that this basic type—anxious, armed, and quick to anger in the face of the Other—is neither rare nor remarkable in an increasingly polarized cultural climate. The audio clips of Dunn talking on the telephone from lock-up with his fiancée are testimonies to the art of self-delusion, as if he’s trying to convince himself of his innocence by using her as a sounding board. (“I think that I should make some kind of public statement,” he muses at one point, imagining himself as spokesman for decent people terrified by gangsta culture).
In addition to its procedural structure and sociological subtext, 3 ½ Minutes is also a profile of Davis’ parents, who open up to the camera separately and together: We learn that they’ve been divorced for over a decade, which adds an extra dimension to their united front in the aftermath of their son’s death. The emotions here are so raw and relatable that certain aspects of Silver’s presentation—particularly the insistent musical score—seem over-cranked, and yet the film on the whole feels restrained considering the scope of the rage and sadness in play. When Davis’ father talks about receiving a text from Trayvon Martin’s dad welcoming him into “the club,” it’s a devastating suggestion of individual agony as shared experience in a country where these things just keep on happening—a war on the home front with no end in sight.