Saturday, October 12, 2019

NYFF Spotlight: American Trial: The Eric Garner Story

I managed to catch two selections at this year’s 57th Annual New York Film Festival. Here’s the second.

American Trial: The Eric Garner Story
Directed by Roee Messinger
Special Events

On July 27, 2014, a black man in Staten Island named Eric Garner died while being arrested and subdued by multiple police officers. Video of the attempted arrest showed one of the officers, Daniel Pantaleo, placing Garner in a chokehold when he refused to be taken in, followed by Garner repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe” as he was wrestled to the ground. His death fueled Black Lives Matter and other movements to advocate for change in the way people of color are disproportionately killed by law enforcement, yet Pantaleo was never put on trial for his role in Garner’s death. This film explores that idea by imagining what might have transpired.

This film, which can’t quite be called a documentary, casts real people in the roles that they did play or would have played. Garner’s wife and friend portray themselves, testifying about what they knew about the man and what they saw and experienced that day. Two lawyers on each side act out those parts, while a lawyer plays the role of the judge. As questions are asked and accountability is explored, only Pantaleo is portrayed by an actor, Anthony Altieri. What happened is tackled from every angle, eliciting passionate responses and objections from the lawyers and those brought to the stand to give their testimony and analysis.

This is an intriguing experiment, one that posits the questions that anyone who watched the video – which is most people – would want to ask. What’s most emphasized, however, is that this isn’t the police department being put on trial or accused of any particular crime, but rather this one officer who, according to the charges, may be guilty of manslaughter and strangulation. The legal specifics are noted again and again by the defense lawyers and the judge as they debate whether what the officer did should be considered a chokehold, a move that is prohibited by police code, and if his intent was reckless and disregarded the possible result that the man he was trying to subdue could die, since only those things could result in a guilty verdict.

This film will surely stir emotions for anyone watching, with repeated video footage shown and Garner’s widow, Esaw Snipes Garner, painfully recounting the loss of her husband and snapping at anyone who would dare to manipulate her words. The format in which this trial is presented is not particularly riveting, even if its content is worthwhile and interesting. To presume that there wouldn’t be anything sensational about this trial if it did indeed occur is unwise, but there is something to be said for trying to look at this how it would have happened, with participants bringing their own legal knowledge and opinions in to try to help create justice where it wasn’t found.


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