In 10 Words or Less
...And justice for all...except Darryl Hunt
Loves: Good documentaries
Likes: New ways to tell a story
Hates: Corrupted justice
At this point in history, who hasn't heard of a man being wrongly convicted and imprisoned, only to be vindicated years (or even decades) later? After seeing it happen so often, the concept has nearly become hokey as a plot. So when a documentary uses Darryl Hunt, just such a victim of judicial failure, as its subject, it runs the risk of coming off as just another story we've heard before. Thankfully, though the story is familiar, the way it's told is not, resulting is a quality documentary.
When Deborah Sykes, a young white woman, is raped and killed in North Carolina in 1984, a biased "eyewitness" and a questionable 911 call helps put the police on the trail of Hunt, who by all accounts had nothing to do with the crime. But despite a lack of real evidence, and due in some part to the inexperience of the pair of lawyers assigned to defend him, Hunt is railroaded and sent to prison. It's stunning to see how easy it was to ruin this man's life, though hardly surprising to see that race played a part in it, considering the locale. The lack of credibility in the witnesses alone is incredible, as the film breaks down the problems in their testimony.
The film plays out via new interviews with those involved, which are paired with archival interviews, and old TV news footage that makes the story oddly current. It's incredible to watch a story that is heading in one and only one direction, drive deliberately (and at times too slowly) toward an obvious goal, yet leaving you wondering if you'll ever get there. That's how palpable the film makes the threat of racism and corruption in the judicial system. When it all comes down to it, even the most predictable moment leaves you holding your breath, especially when Hunt is offered an "easy" way out, which would require him to admit guilt.
If there's any downside to the story it is the pacing. One gets the feeling that Hunt's tale could have been told in 10-15 minutes less movie, but directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (producer of the excellent "Family Plots") had a definite vision for the film, and the obvious attempt to hammer home the point that Hunt received a raw deal from the courts for 20 years, while giving plenty of credit to Hunt's advocates, adds some bulk to the movie. On the other hand, the use of old TV news broadcasts to "report" on the story is inspired, as it puts you in the shoes of those in the area at the time, making it easy to see how unbelievable the injustice was, even at the time.
Packed in a standard keepcase, the DVD is a one-disc release, which features an animated anamorphic widescreen main menu, offering options to watch the film, select scenes, watch special features and adjust languages. Audio options include Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 English tracks, with English SDH subtitles, though there is no closed captioning.
The film is presented with an anamorphic widescreen transfer that handles the variety of source materials well, with the new materials coming across best, with a clean image, solid color and a lack of dirt, damage and digital artifacts. The older TV footage and in-court material is a bit rough around the edges, looking like the aged video tape it is, but photos and old printed material is presented in beautiful detail.
The audio, presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, is clean and clear, putting the dialogue up front and center, with some of the music filtering to the sides and rear. There are some issues with separation at times, with the dialogue bleeding over to the other speakers, but these seem like minor errors that don't crop up frequently. Curiously, the DVD has an insert promo for the film's soundtrack, with artists like Starsailor and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, but I can't account for their presence in the film, which mainly features very atmospheric instrumentals, including a very effective use of the piano.
The extras start up with four bonus interviews, which run just over 14 minutes in length, and can be viewed separately or all together. Hunt talks about his story, defender Mark Rabil discusses the case, advocate Larry Little focuses on Malcolm X and the Community and well-known lawyer Barry Scheck covers DNA testing. Perhaps its because of how it's presented, standing on its own, but this material is as interesting as anything in the main film.
The interviews are followed by a longer one, presented as a 24-minute HBO featurette, with Regina Lane, a victim similar to Sykes who was attacked shortly after Sykes. It's a pretty harrowing piece, as she describes her assault in vivid detail, which is supplemented by crime-scene photos and pictures of Lane, post-attack. Subtly-crafted, maintaining a close-up static camera position, it's an incredibly powerful interview, and an excellent supplement to the film.
The Bottom Line
It's a tale we've heard before, but it's still shocking to see how the system we are taught to trust can be perverted to send an innocent man to prison. And while it's an old story, this time it's told with style and skill, utilizing a solid blend of footage, old and new, and a sense of storytelling that makes an obvious plot as nerve-wracking as a Hitchcock film. The film is presented with a high-level of quality and is paired with a good amount of extras that actually do add to the movie. Fans of quality documentaries will want to check this one out, though it's definitely not a feel-good story. This is a look at the dark side of justice and the hope that, in the end, innocence will be upheld.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or his convention blog called Conning Fellow
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.