DOCUMENTARY: Panthers vs Bullets
Hari watches two documentaries about recent histories and weighs them up.
Last month, the Watershed put on two very different films following two different movements, in two different eras, led by black Americans. The first was ‘3/1 Minutes, Ten Bullets’ a documentary by Marc Silver that dissects the aftermath of Jordan Davis’s shooting in Jacksonville, Florida. The second was ‘Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution’, directed by Stanley Nelson, which tells the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party, one of the 20th century’s most alluring and controversial organisations.
Both of these are very important documentaries, very informative and very detailed, but only one of them left an impact. Granted, neither explores a pleasant topic, and although one has what you might call a ‘happy’ ending with justice being served, the other ends on a note that falls flat. One was simply more watchable than the other.
‘Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution’ uses new footage of the beatings and racist attacks on black Americans from the 1950s and 60s, often of quite a vicious nature and not the often recycled and grainy footage found on most documentaries or clips exploring the Civil Rights Movement. The documentary provides new video recordings for why the movement was a necessity. These new clips, in addition to the ones we are used to (dogs being set on black men and groups of protesters being hosed down) provide the backbone for why the Black Panthers deemed it necessary to carry around firearms (abiding by the legislation in place, that it must be on display in broad daylight and at a safe legal distance from an incident – the film explores these in more detail).
It was also interesting to find out about the socialist stance of the Panthers, a class-oriented struggle exploring the need for better housing and education for future generations. This included organising and running Free School Meals centres, open for all children and revealing FBI memorandums that detail J Edgar Hoover’s attempts to attack and discredit the BPP through the following measures:
1. Prevent a coalition of militant black nationalist groups….
- 2. Prevent the rise of a messiah who could unify and electrify the militant nationalist movement … Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael and Elijah Muhammad all aspire to this position….
- 3. Prevent violence on the part of black nationalist groups….
- 4. Prevent militant black nationalist groups and leaders from gaining respectability by discrediting them….
- 5. . . . prevent the long-range growth of militant black nationalist organizations, especially among youth
Although very informative, with startling revelations, something about this documentary makes it uninteresting to watch. I don’t mean it’s not enjoyable in the sense the topic is so bleak that it makes you uncomfortable, nor do I mean it’s not enjoyable because it’s vague and completely disorganised. However, it does feel flat. Maybe because I was very tired when I went to see it, but I found myself dozing off a few times, and when I was awake I was seeing a restless audience shuffling around, nodding off but nonetheless committed to watching the film to the end.
In contrast, ‘3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets’ explores the court trial and procedure following the case of Jordan Davis, who was shot dead by Michael Dunn. Jordan Davis was another young, unarmed, black man that was killed in America in the past few years (see George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and the NYPD, Jerald Ard and Victor Steen, Michael Brown and Darren Wilson). The documentary hits seemingly every question and angle:
- whether the loudness of the music had an impact on the situation
- whether there was a genuine threat of a concealed weapon brandished by Jordan
- whether there was time to dispose of a potential weapon that wasn’t recovered by the authorities
- the character assassination of Jordan and his friends
- the choice of clothing Jordan and his friends wore, what impact this has and what parents would warn their children about
- using the term ‘thug’ to describe black men
- settling for a lighter sentence in order to achieve some form of justice, although it would mean that Michael Dunn would not be served a sentence for killing Jordan
- the court/jury’s decisions on what crimes they thought could be proven and what to do on the other counts
- and the surprisingly honest testimony of a witness to help clarify Michael Dunn’s intent for his actions
The thoroughness and overall humanity of the story, alongside an ending involving a genuine triumph (Michael Dunn’s incarceration on all counts) is expertly handled by documentary filmmaker Marc Silver, who never once appears on screen and simply allows the story to tell itself from the perspective of those involved. Silver set out to cover the story of Jordan’s death and was in the process of filming weeks before the George Zimmerman verdict. His original intention was to explore the forensic case of what happened in the 210 seconds that led to Jordan’s death, the issue of racial profiling, access to guns and laws allowing people to access guns. However, as they were editing the film, Ferguson and other cases exploded throughout America. In a memorably heartbreaking point in the documentary, we are told that Jordan’s father Roy Davis received a text message from Trayvon Martin’s father offering his condolences and the following message:
‘Welcome to a club that none of us wants to be in’
These overall strengths lead to the documentary winning The Special Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival, the Sheffield Youth Jury Award for Silver, and why it holds a 100% fresh rating on the hallowed Rotten Tomato meter (although to only a disappointing number of reviews at 33). To read more about Silver’s process and how the documentary unfolds, read his article for The Guardian here
It is frightening to see how the behaviour that caused such outrage and led to the creation and rise of the Black Panther Party does not seem all that different from the modern day, as explored in this article by Isabel Wilkerson here. Perhaps ‘3 1/2 Minutes’ feels better because it is more personal, more concise, and revolves around an ongoing struggle that ended in court around this time last year so it touches us more personally than the story of The Panthers. Either way, it is the much better documentary.