*. The words “courtroom drama” go together because the trial process (civil or criminal), while quite dull in most cases, has an inherently dramatic structure in its quest for truth, with lawyers performing before an audience of judge, jury, and assembled media.
*. I don’t think Murder on a Sunday Morning, which won an Academy Award for Best Documentary, does anything special or new with any of this formula, but it’s a great story and hits all its marks.
*. A husband and wife visiting Florida are accosted outside their hotel and the wife is shot and killed. The police go looking for a Black man, and yes, as things turn out any Black man will do. They pull fifteen-year-old Brenton Butler off the street and the husband of the victim identifies him as the shooter. Butler is arrested and signs a confession. Luckily for him a pair of dogged public defenders (Patrick McGuinness and Ann Finnell) take up his case.
*. As I say, there’s nothing exceptional about Murder on a Sunday Morning as documentary filmmaking. Director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade just follows the course of the trial. He gets a lot of access from McGuiness, who candidly explains how he’s going about preparing and presenting the case. But there are none of the surprise twists or turning points that have become essential to true crime documentaries like this. Nor are there any stylistic flourishes. This lets us focus on the case itself.
*. One item that doesn’t get a lot of attention is the psychology of the false confession (no spoiler alerts necessary in letting you know that Butler didn’t kill anyone). Perhaps this was just because we’re meant to think that it was beaten out of him. But while Butler was beaten by the police, there’s usually more to a false confession than that, and it would have been interesting to dig into this a bit deeper. But then this isn’t a doc that goes beyond the story itself to interview experts on other matters.
*. The other point that stands out is just how bad the police were. My own sense is that when the police screw up like this it is less the result of incompetence or malice/racism than sheer laziness. Investigators like to take short cuts and get tunnel vision looking for the quickest and easiest way to wrap things up. As became clear in the cross-examination of the detectives working this case, nobody wanted to do any work. Just punching a suspect up and getting a confession was a lot simpler.
*. Every great documentary has to have at least one moment where you are struck in amazement. This doesn’t have to be a big, splashy moment, and in fact is often a bit of quiet but intense drama. That moment in this movie is the long shot of Butler’s face as his mother testifies, which is a scene of overwhelming emotion. It’s enough alone to recommend Murder on a Sunday Morning, and does more than anything else, even Butler’s quick acquittal, to restore a little faith in humanity in the midst of a dark picture of state justice. Because let’s face it: Butler was one of the lucky ones.