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Marc Silver’s moving and illuminating documentary “3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets” reveals a lot about what is wrong in the United States today and a little bit of what’s right.

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when stores offer bargains to rabid holiday shoppers, took on a genuinely dark cast on Nov. 23, 2012, in Jacksonville, Fla. Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old African-American, sat in a car at a gas station with some friends. They were listening to rap music. Michael Dunn, a 45-year-old white male, asked Davis and the other youths to turn down the music. An altercation developed, and Dunn grabbed a pistol and fired 10 shots into the teenagers’ car, killing Davis.

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Silver picks up the story about a year later, as Dunn’s trial begins, and he records that process mostly from the point of view of Davis’s parents, Ron Davis and Lucia McBath. Silver’s access to the two, especially to McBath (the two are divorced), is intense and intimate. They relive that awful moment every day as they drive to the courthouse, and they fear their son’s killer will escape justice.

How could that happen, if Dunn admits to committing the act? Just months earlier in Florida another black teenager, Trayvon Martin, was gunned down under similar circumstances, by George Zimmerman. Zimmerman pleaded self-defense, according to the state’s “stand your ground” law, and was acquitted. Dunn’s lawyer pursues the same strategy.

As the film demonstrates, the “stand your ground” law is like a sane person’s version of the insanity defense. Both depend on subjective criteria. In the case of stand your ground, it is not whether the defendant knows the difference between right or wrong but whether he perceives a stereotype as a reality. If the accused feels endangered, regardless of the facts, he can kill with impunity a black teenager who is playing what Dunn describes as “thug music.”

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Davis’s parents’ fears seem justified as the trial unfolds (Silver also has access to the proceedings, and films them with the eye of an expert storyteller). Since Dunn is not charged with a hate crime, race cannot be discussed. And Dunn’s lawyer obfuscates the facts with hypotheticals and insinuations about the victim’s character.

Silver may be guilty of one-sidedness, but he does allow Dunn his say — unfortunately for him. Recordings of a prisoner’s phone calls are publicly available, and Silver shares the most incriminating exchanges between Dunn and his meek — but ultimately heroic — fiancee. Joe Berlinger employs a similar device in last year’s “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger,” and Dunn comes off in some ways as more despicable and certainly more deluded than the mobster.

Though the outcome is a matter of public record, it still unfolds like a suspenseful tragedy. Suffice it to say that the wheels of justice turn slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine. If not so fine as to end racism, or restore the life of a murdered child.


Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.