Review: Documentary ‘The Phantom’ finds injustice on the streets of Corpus Christi

A man hides under a truck as two police officers shine a flashlight in a reenactment from the documentary “The Phantom.”
A reenactment of the arrest of murder suspect Carlos DeLuna, from the documentary “The Phantom.
(Greenwich Entertainment)

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A gruesome 1983 murder in Corpus Christi, Texas, left two innocent casualties, one at the scene and another by lethal injection six years later. In “The Phantom,” documentarian Patrick Forbes observes this true-crime incident in the context of ingrained racism and the disproportionate number of people of color who die at the hands of the state.

A photograph showing murder suspect Carlos DeLuna, left, from the 2021 documentary “The Phantom.”
A photograph of murder suspect Carlos DeLuna, left, in custody, from the 2021 documentary “The Phantom.”
(Greenwich Entertainment)

In February 1983, gas station attendant Wanda Lopez was savagely stabbed; later that night, police apprehended Carlos DeLuna, a young Latino with a criminal history. Officers congratulated themselves for their swift response, assuming that DeLuna was the killer. DeLuna, who vehemently denied having committed the killing, was found guilty and received the death penalty.

Bypassing pristine studio interviews, Forbes brings the eyewitnesses, the attorneys and a journalist who became very close to the case back to the spaces where the events transpired, at times reenacting some of their not always reliable impressions from nearly 40 years ago, as if to make the past speak again.

Forbes’ method is engaging, but the downside is an overbearing score touting suspense.

DeLuna himself is heard only in small clips from news footage, but his brother Manuel brings familial insight to this upsetting account of institutionalized barbarity. Since everyone affected came from impoverished communities, their woes were easily discarded by the authorities, the film claims. Even when obvious clues pointing to a completely different version of the events appeared, they were conveniently overlooked.

Forbes proposes that neither the defense nor the prosecution cared enough about the victim or the accused to invest proper time and resources. He ties this to the historical mistreatment of Mexican Americans in Texas with the use of archival photos but fails to further examine long-standing prejudices and acts of violence. The parallels are left too ambiguous, robbing the documentary of greater impact.

As more sinister revelations come to light in this proficient and intriguing reevaluation of what occurred, the willful ineptitude of those entrusted with approximating the truth glistens with shamefulness. The ghostly entity in the title refers as much to a person of interest hiding in plain sight as it does to the perpetually elusive idea of justice for all in this country.

‘The Phantom’

Not Rated

Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes

Playing: Starts July 2, Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica; also available on Laemmle Virtual Cinema and digital