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Awaiting Catharsis in American Trial: the Eric Garner Story

Image Credits to: IMBD

By Keyanah Nurse 

How many times have you seen the video of Eric Garner’s death?  With how much precision or accuracy can you describe the moment in which NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo placed Garner in a lethal chokehold?  Do you know how many times Garner uttered, with less and less breath each time, “I can’t breath?” I ask myself these questions every time I replay and re-watch the video of Eric Garner’s murder.  It is my own attempt to monitor the ways in which I may become desensitized to seeing black death. It is a call to resist that desensitization.  

I asked myself those questions yet again when the Justice Department announced its decision to forego indicting Pantaleo.  Although lost in my own oscillation between outrage, bewilderment, and dread, I remember very clearly attending various Black Lives Matter protests around New York City that December. But as the list of hashtagged names grew alongside Garner’s, as well as the number of law enforcement agents that escaped culpability, I also remember questioning what kind of impact this blatant disregard for justice would have on our national psyche. 

Perhaps these were some of the frustrations that motivated filmmaker Roee Messinger to direct and produce the film American Trial: the Eric Garner Story.  Screened at the 2019 New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, American Trial is a cinematic imagining of what the trial of Daniel Pantaleo would have looked like —had it happened.  Although the events of the film never transpired, Messinger plays with the distinction between truth and “fiction” by mixing a variety of film genres.  Part documentary, part feature length drama, American Trial is completely unscripted.  Only one actor appears in the film to portray Pantaleo; every other person in the film —the attorneys, the retired police officers, the judge, the doctors —occupy those professions off the big screen.  While the trial is “fictionalized,” the movie traffics in the illusion of reality by including interviews from prominent Black Lives Matter activists DeRay McKesson and Netta Elzie, news clips from CNN and NBC, and even court testimonials from Garner’s family and friends, including his wife, Eshaw Garner.

As an intellectual and artistic exercise, the film’s collage of various genres is noteworthy. However, beyond the scope of genre, what is the purpose of blurring the line between fact and fiction?   To what end does reframing the murder of Eric Garner in this particular way serve the audience? On the one hand, such a strategy accomplishes what most documentary films seek to do: it highlights the ways in which individuals navigate larger societal dynamics by living through the quotidian or extraordinary things that happen to them.  In the case of American Trial, the interviews with Black Lives Matter activists, as well as scholars who study the history of race and policing in the United States, punctuate the proceedings of the trial.  They flag for viewers the larger debates around whether or not the death of Eric Garner, and those of the countless other black people like him, was the cause of a few “bad apples,” or whether or not corruption, abuse, and racism are more endemic to the system of policing generally.  In some senses, Messigner’s stance on this issue is clear. When discussing this film, he has noted that its very existence reveals his politics: he believes there should have been a trial.  But as he also explained, the film’s legitimacy and “merit” hinged on its ability to present “both” sides: both sides of this fictionalized trial, and by extension, both sides of the larger debate on police brutality.  

Notwithstanding the plethora of research that firmly disproves the “bad apple” narrative, the black and brown communities that have existed under the thumb of arbitrary policing for generations are already well aware of the speciousness of such a justification.  Having grown up in such a community myself (I was born and raised in Camden, NJ — one of the most policed and neglected cities in the Northeastern U.S.), I know that the “bad apple” narrative is but a mere rhetorical smokescreen.  It obscures the “coincidence” that the communities that suffer from the most policing are the very same ones that also lack access to nutritional food, reasonably-funded schools, and safe housing, among other necessities for a dignified life.  If one is already aware of the systemic intersections between policing and anti-black racism in the United States, then what other insights does this film offer?  

As I sat in the dark theatre and watched Eshaw Garner give her testimony in court, I wondered if one of the other goals of the film was to offer a kind of catharsis, to invite viewers to imagine a world in which the U.S. justice system actually held police officers accountable for their rash actions. For example, in the final credits, Mrs. Garner appears once again, and in an outtake of her court testimony, she sobs “the reality of it hit me just now. I never got to grieve…”  Mrs. Garner’s moment of mourning is certainly one of the film’s most powerful scenes —even if it is relegated to an outtake in the final credits. But just as the judge is about to read the jury’s final verdict, the screen cuts to black, the outro music begins, and the credits start to roll. The absence of any definitive and explicit justice, even within this alternate reality, is harrowing. It reminds the audience that no, we do not get to experience the same catharsis. We will be forever doomed to repeat and consume the same displays of black trauma and black pain. Without that verdict, we end just as we began, grounded in the reality that American justice very rarely vindicates all Americans.  

I left the screening of American Trial deeply unsettled by the emotional labor that Messinger asks of his audience, particularly those of us that have to navigate this political moment in black and brown skin.  It should not go unremarked that Messinger himself is neither American nor a person of African descent. These two axes of his identity do not necessarily disqualify him from directing such a film, but it does raise questions about the value of this movie for different types of audiences.  Black people currently living in the United States, in my view, do not need yet another reminder that justice is elusive for our communities. Indeed, as I left the theatre, my brain and stomach still reeling over what I just saw, my Twitter feed was once again flooded with another name of a murdered Black person, that of Atatiana Jefferson.  Black death, it seems, will always be trending.  

For those unfamiliar with the debates around police brutality, American Trial offers an unforgiving introduction to the biases and shortcomings of the U.S. criminal justice system.  The very words in the title, therefore, invite viewers to explore the oxymoron of American justice. For black audiences, however, it is a reminder that our catharsis is yet to be found.  

Keyanah Nurse is a femme intellectual queen on a mission to change the way we think about love, intimacy, and connection.  Follow her on Twitter @KeyanahNurse.

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