The tragic events happened more than two years ago, and Ron Davis has been mentally replaying them ever since.
That holiday weekend when his life turned upside down. When he received the call from Leland Brunson, the close friend of his 17-year-old son Jordan, and also a young black male. When he heard the words he couldn’t quite believe.
“He said to me, ‘Mr. Davis, Jordan’s been shot,'“ Davis recalled in an interview. “Not 'dead,' 'shot,'” Davis stressed. “And as a parent I wanted to keep it right there. I didn't want to know if it was that bad.”
Davis drove to the hospital and heard that his son had died. Then, in a haze, he returned home.
“I remember sitting in the car outside my house not wanting to go in. Because I knew once I went in I would have to call Lucy [ex-wife Lucia McBath]. And that would set the ball rolling, and it would keep it rolling. And that would be like another death.”
Davis and McBath had made the trip here last week from their homes in Jacksonville, Fla., and Atlanta to talk about the former couple’s only child and the new documentary “3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets” that chronicles his death. With the killing Wednesday night of pastor and state Sen. Clementa C. Pinckney and eight other at Charleston, S.C.'s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by suspected lone gunman Dylann Roof, their story is as tragically timely as ever.
On the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend in 2012, Jordan Davis — a well-behaved teenager with a bright smile and future — pulled in to a Jacksonville gas station parking lot with three friends after a day of shopping. It was not yet 8 p.m. A moment later, Michael Dunn, a white 45-year-old software developer, pulled up alongside them en route from a wedding.
Dunn soon got into a verbal altercation with the young men, all of whom were unarmed, over the volume of their music. Several minutes later, Dunn had drawn his gun and shot 10 bullets at the car. Three of the young men survived. Davis did not.
British filmmaker Marc Silver directed the movie, which after winning accolades at the Sundance Film Festival, premieres at AFI Docs on Thursday and opens in New York on Friday and in L.A. next week.
With its intimate portrayal of a tragedy that echoes the killings of unarmed black men around the country, “3 1/2 Minutes” offers a tale as emotional as it is topical. To many Americans these events are notable for their legal consequences and sociological significance. To the parents they are about losing a child.
Silver's work takes the stuff of many news cycles — in addition to the shootings at the Emanuel AME church, there was the recent killing of Walter Scott by a police officer in South Carolina and many other incidents — and he makes them personal. “3 1/2 Minutes” offers a potent reminder that, for all they suggest about race in America, these incidents operate at far more than the touchstone level on which most of us relate to them.
“There was something about this crazy coincidence of millions of cars driving around, and these two cars pulling up next to each other,” Silver said in a separate interview. “I was fascinated by what that means for those who are the subjects of that coincidence.”
The killing and ensuing legal proceedings were covered heavily at the time. But they were largely given a nightly-news treatment, and Silver wanted to tell the human stories behind that coverage. Silver spent a week with Davis and McBath seeking their cooperation, often sitting at Davis’ kitchen table just talking about Jordan (some of that footage, with a warmly human quality--is in the film).
There was some hesitation, before the pair came to the conclusion that this would be the best thing they could do for their son. Davis and McBath have since embraced the movie, watching it scores of times, including at a screening at the Human Rights Watch Festival here last weekend. (The movie will also air on HBO in the fall.)
“I think it’s important for us to keep sitting through it,” McBath said as Davis nodded in agreement. “We can't let the story get stale. Because if the story gets stale then it won’t be real.”
McBath, 55, has a quiet resolve that makes her words more powerful; her tone is pitched between grief and anger in a way that manages to convey both but fall into neither. Since her son’s death, she has formed a gun-control organization and spoken out about gun violence.
Davis, too, has sought to give his son’s death meaning. Like his wife a former Delta employee, Davis, 62, has launched a foundation and talks regularly to other fathers in the same circumstance. (Shortly after Jordan’s death, Ron Davis received a call from Tracy Martin, father of Trayvon Martin, welcoming him, as Davis recounts in the film, “to the club that no one wants to be a member of.”) He has also talked to relatives of Oscar Grant, the victim and subject of 2013 drama ““Fruitvale Station,” and several days before the interview, spoke to Walter Scott’s father, counseling him about what to expect culturally and emotionally.
“Fathers are not really seen in these cases. It’s the mothers. Fathers are not supposed to emote. They’re supposed to be stoic,” Davis said. “But I cry for my son every day. I don't care who's around. Because that’s my son. That’s a part of my future, and for him to be gunned down in that way is something to cry over.”
Though the interview took place before the church shootings, both Davis and McBath offered comments that were eerily prescient given the events in Charleston on Wednesday night.
"The thing about guns [in this country] is how easy they are to walk around with," Davis said. "People walk into Walmart with guns. It's all about the fact that in the back of people’s minds black lives don't matter. For black people, it starts to feel not like America the Beautiful but America the Dangerous."
Added McBath. "These laws get so expansive, so people get more bold. They'll walk in with their guns anywhere. This happened to Trayvon and this happened to Jordan and this happened to all these babies in Sandy Hook, and yet our legislators are still allowing it.”
Davis said he will sometimes call McBath just to tell her he's having a rough day, and she will respond with empathy.
Though each is now with other people, the two had a close relationship co-parenting their son -- Jordan, McBath recalled with a melancholy smile, would often encourage them to spend more time together -- and say they have grown closer in the wake of the tragedy. (Silver notes ruefully that the two “are in a way parenting Jordan even after he’s died.”)
At the trial, Dunn offered a defense that he felt threatened and saw a gun in the car into which he shot. None was found, and even Dunn's girlfriend said he had never mentioned a gun in the aftermath of the shooting.
Still, Dunn's first trial ended in a hung jury (he was convicted on lesser charges involving the other young men). A second trial resulted in a conviction for the murder of Jordan Davis; Dunn is now serving a life sentence without parole.
Those trials were a crucible for Davis and McBath -- made worse, they said, by the constrictions placed on them. They had to keep silent as the defense suggested that David and his friends were “thugs” killed by Dunn in self-defense. On their lawyer’s advice, they even had to avoid sitting in the front row lest their sympathetic presence be grounds for an appeal later.
“They couldn’t even show a picture of him beyond that one small ID photo because it might sway the jury,” Davis said.
“It was excruciating, like salt in an open wound. Because that was our baby on the ground and we couldn’t show emotion,” McBath said.
Davis said he thought the movie could correct that in the collective mind.
"I remember the juror in the Trayvon Martin case who said: ‘We connected with George Zimmerman. We couldn’t connect with Trayvon.’ And the reason they couldn't connect is because you couldn't say anything about Trayvon in court. What we want from this movie is everyone to know about Jordan. Because his story is pure -- he went to school, he didn't do drugs or drink alcohol. He's that kid."
The Jordan Davis trial also became an occasion for a larger debate about racial assumptions, and a flashpoint for so-called stand-your-ground laws, which allow for use of deadly violence in situations of imminent threat.
Silver, who previously directed the Mexican-immigration doc “Who Is Dayani Cristal?” presents the narrative of those events coolly and without judgment, allowing Dunn to describe the circumstances as he experienced them—he suggests, for instance, that he was a victim of intimidation despite little evidence to that effect. (Dunn did not agree to be interviewed for the film but is seen or heard often in archival footage, including in numerous phone calls from prison). As a result, the movie almost sneaks up on viewers, creating a kind of quiet blood-boiling effect.
Silver said he assembled the film with a minimum of implicit director commentary as a means of testing audiences' level of identification with the defendant.
“Something in Michael Dunn is metaphoric about this concept of a post-racial America that is blind to its own racism,” said Silver, who is white. “I wanted to construct it so that he wasn't a bogeyman from the outside. For a lot of white audiences. Dunn said things that, if people were honest, they might say themselves. This is about the root causes of racism, and I hope people reflect on their own beliefs.”
While those questions percolate throughout the film, matters of law and race can fall away listening to Davis and McBath contemplate their lot. Even as they work on the legislative front, they keep turning over more unanswerable questions in their minds.
What if their son had been waylaid even by a few minutes on the way to the gas station? What if he wasn't even in Jacksonville that day, as easily could have been the case? McBath said he had wanted to come to Atlanta but she was traveling to Chicago for the holiday, and she had tried unsuccessfully to convince him to be with her there.
“I still wrestle with what would have happened if he had come to Atlanta or with me to Chicago. He’d be here at this very moment and Ron and I wouldn’t be here today,” McBath said. “I try not to beat myself up over that. But as a mother I feel like I pushed my son into harm’s way. I still have that sense I didn’t protect him.”
Davis said he's been having strange thoughts lately when he reflects on his son arriving at the gas station at that exact moment.
“They’re about that Gwyneth Paltrow movie, 'Sliding Doors.' You know, the one where she makes the train and her life goes one way, and she arrives five minutes later and her life takes a 180-degree turn? I feel like I'm living the worst version of that movie imaginable.”