Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
“Welcome to a club that none of us want to be in.”—text sent from Tracy Martin, father of Trayvon, to Ron Davis, father of Jordan
On November 23rd, 2012, 17-year-old Jordan Davis was listening to loud music in a car with his friends. They were parked at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida, when a visiting software developer, 45-year-old Michael Dunn, got into a verbal altercation with the teenagers, while his girlfriend purchased a bottle of water. Three-and-a-half minutes later, Dunn had shot ten bullets into their car, killing Jordan. It would take nearly two years and two trials for Dunn to be sentenced to life in prison on a first-degree murder charge.
Jordan’s mother, Lucia McBath, currently serves as a national spokesperson for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and is featured in two of the year’s most powerful documentaries. The first film, Marc Silver’s “3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets,” will be screening in Chicago as part of the Black Harvest Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center. It presents an intimate look at the grueling trials, illustrating how Florida’s controversial “stand-your-ground” law played a crucial role in Dunn’s defense. Abigail Disney’s “The Armor of Light,” which is set for release on October 30th, centers on an Evangelical minister, Rev. Rob Schenck, who is encouraged by McBath to become a vocal proponent of gun control.
Prior to visiting Chicago for the Black Harvest screenings of “3 1/2 Minutes,” McBath spoke with RogerEbert.com about her experience making both films, the vital role that faith plays in her life, and her recent visit with the victims in Charleston.
What compelled you to share your story in this way with these films?
First and foremost, we wanted people to know the truth about our case. We see this sort of gun violence happening all over the country, and we wanted to share what we know to be true and help accelerate the work that needs to be done, federally and legislatively, nationally and on the local level, toward curbing these kinds of violent acts through the availability of guns.
Was it always the plan from the outset to have such intimate footage from the trials included in “3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets”?
No, that actually wasn’t how we started off. We just wanted to be able to tell the story, but then the filmmaker, Marc Silver, and his producers came up with the visionary idea of actually filming the entirety of the trials—we thought there was only going to be one. I credit Marc and producer Minette Nelson as the visionaries behind the concept of having the viewer really be able to watch this thing play out. We wanted to show the tremendous impact—emotional, physical, spiritual—that this kind of trauma has on the victims and their families. This violence is devastating our community, devastating our families, and we have to come to some kind of solution with the gun culture to keep our people safe.
How did Marc earn your trust during production?
He was very careful not to infringe upon us emotionally. He let us expose as much as we wanted to. Of course, he would always ask questions that would evoke deep thoughts and feelings from us, but he never pressured or needled us. He just prompted us to share what we wanted to share. There were moments when we were just completely at a loss and breaking down, and he would turn off the camera. He wanted to pinpoint all the nuances of our specific truth, but at the same time, he really cared about what we were going through as victims. What he wanted, overall, was for us to be honest, and I just applaud Marc for his visionary mentality. We’re very blessed to have had such great teams on both films, and I’m so excited that they came together to tell our story.
The extent to which Michael Dunn is humanized in the film, with the inclusion of his own story, makes the story all the more devastating. He doesn’t come off as a one-dimensional monster.
I agree with you 100 percent. One thing that Marc kept saying all along is that, “This is everyone’s tragedy.” He met Michael Dunn and his family, though they refused to be interviewed. Marc wanted to portray everyone as human beings, even in light of everything that happened. We are still human beings and we are still making choices and dealing with the repercussions of those choices.
The confession of Michael’s girlfriend, who confessed that he never mentioned seeing Jordan with a firearm in the crucial hours following the incident, seems to have been a pivotal moment in the case.
I honestly didn’t think that she was going to come forward. The detective had to keep reassuring me that she was cooperating. My train of thought was, “Why aren’t we prosecuting her?” She was basically an accomplice, and if she told Michael to take her home and they didn’t call the police, then she was basically in on it. Until she actually gave her statements on the stand, I wasn’t 100 percent sure that she would cooperate. I’m very grateful that she made those statements, but I also know that she was making those statements to keep herself from going to jail.
I get a sense in both films—particularly “The Armor of Light”—that faith plays a vital role in your life.
I am very much a woman of deep and abiding faith. I have seen the hand of God in my life in more ways than I can even count. With everything that I’ve been through in my life—I’ve been through a divorce, two bouts of breast cancer and then losing Jordan—God has been the only thing that I’ve been able to count on. He has revealed Himself to me in a far greater way than I ever imagined, and I knew that He existed before, but not on the level that I know now. Every door that I’ve been able to walk though during this tragedy has only been possible because of God. I know that all of the places I’m going now and the platform that I’ve been given has been because of God. I take the work that He’s given me very, very seriously because I know that what I say and what I do matters to a lot of people. The most important thing for me is that I want people to see the face of God. I want them to know through me that God exists. I want them to believe in the God I serve, even though they may not understand what it is they see. I want them to know that they have been impacted by God for the better. Despite everything that has happened to me, the hand of God has been in it all.
How did Abigail Disney first approach you with the concept for “The Armor of Light”?
We were at the beginning of the first trial when our attorney, John Phillips, made a connection with Abigail Disney and the two of them began talking about our story. We flew to New York, met with Abigail and her team, and it just took off from there. Abby wanted to expose what was going on with the NRA and the gun lobby in the country, but she didn’t have a vehicle in which to do it until we came along. Everything that Abby does is with the connotation and the mindset of trying to create a sense of peace and sanctity for life. She wasn’t quite sure what angle she wanted the movie to have, at first, because she didn’t want to infringe upon what was already being done with “3 1/2 Minutes.” So it just began to evolve. She was introduced to Rob Schenck and became interested in him, while at the same time, learning about my own faith. That’s when she decided to make both of our stories the subject of the film. At one point, I asked her, “What else are you filming?”, and she was like, “Uh…you and Rob,” and I was like, “Oh, really?!” [laughs] They had been filming for months, and I hadn’t realized until near the end of the project that the film was just about me and Rob. I am extremely honored that she would select the two of us to carry out her work.
Abby asked me if Rob was someone that I might want to meet, and I said, “Oh gosh, yes!” I was so excited to meet him because I felt that we hadn’t dealt with gun violence in our culture from a faith perspective. I completely understood that this was a faith matter and a heart matter, and you have to change the hearts of people in order to get them to see people as individuals and not fear people who are different from them. We are not living the way we are supposed to be living as Christians if we can continue to condone this kind of fear and hatred with the use of guns. I jumped at the chance to meet Rob because if he was even remotely starting to think about these kinds of things, then he is exactly who we needed to stand up and speak out, with the hope that others would follow him.
The film is astonishing in how it explores the intrinsic link between a more Evangelical ideology and a pro-gun mentality.
A lot of people in the faith community and a lot of pastors don’t want to be too political, so to speak, but when you’re dealing with an issue like gun violence and people are dying in the streets, then the political and the ethical go hand in hand. When the clergy and the faith community refuse to speak about what’s happening in the country, then people start looking for other voices to guide them. That is how the NRA has become so strong. They have become the moral voice for right-wing conservatives, which is extremely dangerous. The NRA leadership, which is pushing these kinds of terrible laws around the country, has become the moral barometer and the moral voice for right-wing Christians. Faith leaders have an ethical and moral responsibility to stand up, speak out and begin mobilizing their congregants to vote out those very legislators who are imposing on our country these kinds of horrible gun laws.
In one scene, Rob explains to congregants that Fox News and the NRA are not spiritual authorities.
Exactly. When our actual spiritual authorities are refusing to get involved, then we are in trouble. Spiritual leaders that turn a blind eye toward what is happening in this country are almost as dangerous as our legislators. If our leaders aren’t speaking out, then what else do we have left? This must be dealt with on a spiritual and moral platform.
The day prior to the AFI Docs screening of “The Armor of Light,” which I attended, you and Rob visited Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
We went directly to Charleston and had our prayer call to action on our knees before the Emanuel AME. We have since gone back and delivered to the church over 250,000 digital condolences and three boxes of handmade condolences from our supporters around the country. Visiting the church felt like a complete spiritual awakening. Everyone there was loving and caring and supporting each other. For people of faith, church is the last bastion of safety and love and acceptance and forgiveness. The word of God tells us that we are to love one another and that we are not to be in fear of one another. Evil infiltrating the church is like evil infiltrating the heart of God. That’s the reason why people were so rocked by this. But what we saw at the church was a spiritual love fest. We were singing spiritual hymns and people were crying together. I kept saying, “Wow, if only we could somehow [contain] this energy and take it everywhere, we wouldn’t be dealing with these kinds of atrocities.”
The latest movie theater shooting is yet another reminder that communal spaces are often a target for these attacks.
Churches and theaters are spaces where many people will be at one time, and I think a lot of what we see happening with these shooters is that they are looking for attention. They are looking for spaces that will attract the greatest numbers of people. It’s so despicable what’s happening in the country. I’ve lately been putting out some really strong tweets to our legislators, asking, “How much more gun violence do we have to have before you do something about this?” People know that things need to change, but a lot of them either don’t know what to do or they know it exists and they just keep hoping and praying that it doesn’t happen to them.
And yet the victims in these tragedies were just living their lives—going to the movies, going to church, listening to music…
No one is safe. There is no safe place in the country anymore.
Tell me about the scholarship you created in Jordan’s name.
It’s called the Walk With Jordan scholarship foundation, and I created it based on the discussions that I had with Jordan once he moved to Jacksonville with his father. He was very concerned about the different types of education that he was receiving in Jacksonville versus what he had received in Atlanta. He definitely thought the education was inferior to what he had in Atlanta, so I thought, ‘What better way to honor Jordan’s legacy than by educating the very students that Jordan had talked about?’ Once I started going to Jacksonville, particularly when we were invited to go to his high school graduation and receive his diploma, I found that Jordan was absolutely right. Most of the students there wouldn’t be able to afford to go outside of community college, and so I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to offer those students scholarship opportunities.
This scholarship isn’t for the top straight-A students that will already get money, it’s for the students that may never get the chance to go to the Ivy League schools. We offer them financial assistance, and if [recipients] prefer to open their own business and become entrepreneurs, we offer mentoring for that as well. We mentor them and we keep tabs on them, we don’t just give them the money and let them go. We have them take the Myers Briggs assessment online because we want them to understand what they might be better suited to study in school. We don’t tell them what to study, but we guide them toward finding their curriculum of choice. We want them to be fully prepared for the college experience. A lot of their families don’t nurture or support them, and some kids just don’t have any help. We’re there to be that safety net for them.
Lucia McBath will be present for audience discussion following both screenings of “3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets” at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center: 3pm on Sunday, August 9th, and 8pm on Monday, August 10th. To purchase tickets, click here. For more information on gun violence prevention, visit Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. To donate to the Walk With Jordan scholarship foundation, visit its official site.
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