From time to time, debates emerge on the purpose of films, and the purpose of art as an extension. Many ask why, in a world where children die of hunger, people remain homeless, we spend money on making films. Many answer that films help us imagine a future, they give us the radical opportunity to envision a world that doesn’t exist but should.
On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner, a Black man in Staten Island, was murdered by Daniel Pantaleo, an NYPD officer, after Pantaleo held Garner in a chokehold while Garner resisted arrest. Struggling to speak as Pantaleo climbed on to Garner’s back to hold him down, Garner said, “I can’t breathe” 11 times before he passed away. His words would then become the war cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. The police thought Garner was selling single cigarettes. Despite seeing a video of Pantaleo choking Garner, a grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo in 2014 and he held his job at the NYPD until 2019, when he was finally fired. The grand jury transcripts were never revealed and there was no trial.
Roee Messinger’s American Trial: The Eric Garner Story does the radical work of imagining a trial and envisages a future that was denied to Eric Garner and his family, thanks to the extremely racist and flawed legal system in the United States. Messinger’s film is fictional but mostly unscripted; he does not use any actors except Anthony Altieri, who plays Pantaleo and speaks only from Pantaleo’s public statements and from information gathered from his attorney. After having researched the case thoroughly, real-life lawyers play the defenders, prosecutors, and the judge, and litigate as if they were fighting a “real” case in a “real” court. The experts and the witnesses called to testify in the mock trial are all people who would have been summoned had there been a real one. Related news clippings and opinions from activists and legal experts also feature in the narrative.
American Trial could’ve been a bad Law and Order-esque dramatic representation of something extremely grave, but thanks to the film crew’s extensive research, the movie doesn’t just portray an alternate reality but also questions the present legal system’s capability to handle cases like Garner’s murder. Things seem straight out of an absurdist play when defense lawyers keep harping on Garner’s obesity and asthma being instrumental in causing his death and get even more bizarre when the whole trial comes down to discussing the nitty-gritties of Pantaleo’s hand positions and what actually qualifies to be a fatal chokehold. The film brings out how, even within the criminal justice system, fairly universal terms like “homicide” get defined differently medically and legally; while the coroner’s report clearly states homicide as the cause of Garner’s death, the defense lawyers, in their efforts to absolve Pantaleo, repeatedly remind the members of the jury that the court does not accept the medical definition of homicide.
American Trial conjures Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, which sheds light on what the law deems as the truth: “it is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary,” the chaplain tells the protagonist, Josef K., who replies by calling it a “melancholy conclusion” that “turns lying into a universal principle.”
Messinger’s intervention is obviously geared towards placing the blame squarely on Pantaleo, but its larger aim is to highlight the ways in which racism underscores every aspect of the larger legal system. As a South Asian woman of color, what is perhaps most difficult to watch is another South Asian-American lawyer working extremely hard to defend Pantaleo and an Asian forensic pathologist refusing to admit that it was Pantaleo’s actions and not Garner’s weight and medical conditions that actually ended his life. On Messinger’s part, it may have been a casting coincidence, but for me, American Trial is a stark reminder of how many immigrant communities of color are complicit in the large-scale violence that is meted out to Black people in the United States. It is not just Pantaleo who is on trial here; Messinger attacks the psyche of the American society where a grand jury sees nothing wrong in a police officer squeezing the life out of a Black man who continues to say “I can’t breathe.”
At the end of American Trial, behind-the-scenes footage shows Garner’s widow, Esaw Snipes Garner, breaking down after watching her “mock” testimony. “I knew they’d ask questions but it’s like the reality just hit me. Just now, after four years. I never got to grieve because they pushed me into the spotlight almost immediately.” In late 2017, Snipes Garner also lost her daughter, Erica Garner, to a cardiac arrest. American Trial and its portrayal of the broken American legal system seems so real that it doesn’t just convey Snipe Garner’s helplessness but also amplifies it.
Roee Messinger’s American Trial: The Eric Garner Story is screening at the New York Film Festival at the Film Society at Lincoln Center (Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th St, Upper West Side, Manhattan) on Saturday, October 12.