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3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets
Still from "3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets"Courtesy of Dogwoof

Is ‘thug’ the new N-word?

Watch an exclusive clip from a new film that explores the horrific death of unarmed, black teen Jordan Davis

America’s gun problem, flawed laws and unconscious racism are exposed in 3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets, a heartbreaking and sadly topical documentary dissecting the 2012 death of Jordan Davis, an unarmed black 17-year-old. Jordan was with three friends (also black and unarmed) at a Florida gas station when they were instructed to turn down their “thug music” by Michael Dunn, a 45-year-old white man who pulled out a gun. As the four black teens sped away, Dunn fired 10 bullets at their car, killing Jordan in the process.

Bizarrely, the case wasn’t deemed a hate crime as no racist language was used, meaning Dunn expected to be saved with the same “Stand Your Ground” defence used by George Zimmerman. In unsettling phone calls unearthed by the film, Dunn is unrepentant and claims, “(Jordan) would have killed someone if it wasn’t for me.” The thought-provoking footage comes from Brit director Marc Silver (Who is Dayani Cristal?), who flew to Jacksonville to interview Jordan’s friends and relatives, as well as film the trial itself. Inside the courtroom, race couldn’t be mentioned. But outside, it’s a different matter.

What brought you to make this film?

Marc Silver: I thought it was this perfect storm of racial profiling, access to guns, and these laws that give people confidence to use these guns. I realised that within those 3½ minutes, you could tell this much bigger story. We then got in touch with Jordan’s parents and went to meet them, by coincidence, a couple of weeks before the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin verdict. We met friends of his, the boys in the car, his girlfriend. By the end of it, we agreed that we would move forward and see how to make this film.

Michael Dunn’s unapologetic prison phone calls to his fiancée are astonishing. There’s a bit I’ve been trying to understand, when he says, “I’m not racist, they’re the racists.”

Marc Silver: There are other examples. He wrote some letters from prison and graffitied some stuff on his prison cell wall of a similar meaning, that he thought they were racist against white people. He saw himself as innocent. He thought it was the black boys’ perception of him that led to him having to pull out his gun in self-defence.

How did you get those prison phone calls?

Marc Silver: Within the state of Florida, if you’re within the prison system, anything that is recorded has no privacy laws attached to it. So media can access those phone calls; they just need certain bits of information to be legally redacted, like bank account details. We made a request and received tens of hours of these phone calls – which, in a way, having not interviewed Michael Dunn, I think the phone calls became more revealing than an interview with Michael Dunn face-to-face would ever have been.

“Michael Dunn thought they were racist against white people. He saw himself as innocent. He thought it was the black boys’ perception of him that led to him having to pull out his gun in self-defence” – Marc Silver

Did you try to interview Michael Dunn or his fiancée, Rhonda?

Marc Silver: We requested several times to do interviews with Michael Dunn, Rhonda Rouer and Michael Dunn’s parents and family members. But we were told all the time they didn’t want to speak to anybody because they didn’t want to show emotion to the world media – although I suspect that wasn’t the primary reason. Amazingly, they’ve actually never been in touch with Jordan’s parents or ever said anything to Jordan’s parents, even though they sat in court for weeks on end a couple of metres from each other.

When it’s a police officer, I think people can separate themselves from the incident. But Michael Dunn wasn’t a police officer.

Marc Silver: Lots of other killings in the US, the ones we hear about, are predominantly about white policemen killing unarmed black men. Those cases are different to ours. But the more we went into the language of Michael Dunn, I think the DNA of his thinking is also present in those white police officers.

Michael Dunn claimed Jordan and his friends were playing “thug music” in their car. Are terms like “thug music” the new N-word? Has racism evolved its language?

Marc Silver: I think that racism is much more complex than whether you use the N-word or not. And clearly, with Michael Dunn, the connection between his fear and seeing four young black men, I think the film invites you as an audience to question where those constructs come from.

Also, frankly, for a large proportion of white audiences, is there something about the fear that Michael Dunn felt? Not necessarily pulling out a gun, but the fear he felt that actually white audiences can identify with. And therefore, does it make you question your own unconscious biases you might have been brought up with through mainstream media?

You spent so much time getting to know these grieving parents, but you’re also a filmmaker trying to conduct intimate interviews. Is that a tricky balance?

Marc Silver: They were amazing and understanding of my role, so to speak. Because predominantly it was me on my own filming and recording sound. Of course, it’s always an intrusion, but it was the most minimal intrusion. Who on earth could imagine that kind of sense of irreversible loss and grief that’s associated to that? Lucia and Ron (Jordan’s parents) from the very beginning were very adamant, in their words, they wanted to carry on parenting Jordan in his death, and they wanted the world, locally and nationally, to know who Jordan was. And also they wanted to show that Jordan could have been your kid.

I found it interesting the father said he received a text message from Trayvon’s father. Did these other recent race-related shootings in the US affect how you approached the film?

Marc Silver: The Trayvon incident happened before, so we were aware of that, but we couldn’t predict what was to follow with Ferguson and all these other cases. There were times we would have the edit computer running, and I’d have my laptop on the desk by the side. I’d be watching things like Ferguson or Eric Garner unfold, and I had to handcuff myself to the chair to not go and film all these additional cases.

As those things were unfolding, we didn’t really change anything in the edit, but the cut started speaking back to us in a different way. What we were watching suddenly had more resonance because of what was happening outside of the edit. We liked how tight the film was about this one family. What happened to this one family was resonating across America.

3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets is out in cinemas Friday 2 October