It always seemed like such a long and cumbersome title so, as the years went by, I rarely mentioned it. It was such a mouthful that I didn’t think anyone would listen long enough for me to get it out. As a result, pretty much all of my friends think I won the Emmy for a different film, one with a shorter title. An Alzheimer’s Story is a good film, but it didn’t win an Emmy.
Miami: The Trial that Sparked the Riots
by Ruth Neuwald Falcon, Seattle, Washington
We had many discussions about the title of the documentary before arriving at this lengthy one. While cumbersome, it does its job of alerting the prospective viewer to the content of the program. The name of each act has a link to where you can watch it on YouTube.
Teaser: The opening segment of a TV show is called a teaser, which seems a rather frivolous word for the subject matter. But, like titles, it’s best to use descriptive terms.
Act 1: The events leading up to the 1980 trial of the four white police officers who beat a Black motorcyclist to death. Initially, one of the officers reports that Arthur McDuffie’s injuries were sustained by falling off his motorcycle. The scene where it happened is immediately “cleaned up.” When the case comes to trial, the judge calls it a “time bomb” and moves it out of Dade County, in the same way the Rodney King trial was moved out of Los Angeles more than a decade later. An all-white jury is seated.
Act 2: The trial begins with testimony that describes how a cover-up of the actual events began. It continues with the chilling testimony of the medical examiner.
Act 3: The heart of the trial includes conflicting testimony from police witnesses (no cell phone or body cameras then) who get out of the witness box to act out what they recall happening that night. We also hear from prosecution and defense attorneys.
Act 4: The closing segment tries to understand not the what but the why of Arthur McDuffie’s death. It includes interviews with Black and white policemen (including Alex Marrero, who was charged with 2nd degree murder in the case), members of Mr. McDuffie’s family and others.
The last act begins with a quote from James Baldwin: “The white policeman is exposed as few white people are to the anguish of the Black people around him. He can retreat from his uneasiness in only one direction—into a callousness which very shortly becomes second nature.” Before final conversation with members of Arthur McDuffie’s family, correspondent Ed Bradley sits on a park bench with former Officer Alex Marrero for a long talk about what Marrero sees as the problems of policing.
One of the things I most appreciated about the producer of the film, Eric Saltzman (apart from the fact that he hired me), is the number of perspectives he knew it was important to include. It’s not whataboutism to acknowledge the difficulties being faced by those we send to police neighborhoods whose cultures they are not a part of and, at the same time, to also acknowledge the challenges this presents to those being policed in this way.
This is not to say that those who commit acts of brutality should not be held personally accountable and I pray that the outcome of the George Floyd murder trial will not be the same as Arthur McDuffie’s, Rodney King’s and too many others.
In a letter to the Florida governor written during the storm of controversy which followed the not guilty verdicts, one juror explains his reasons for acquitting the defendants: “In my opinion, brutal violence was done to Arthur McDuffie. We did not say that no crime was committed, only that, in accordance with the testimony, evidence and the instructions of the court, these men do not lose the presumption of innocence.”
It certainly appears that the prosecution in the case whose unfolding we are witnessing now is doing an excellent job of laying out the facts, but it is also true that rendering judgment in a court of law is not the same as in the court of public opinion. May this case mark a true inflection point in this country and may justice be served. The passage of police reform legislation in Maryland is a good sign.