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Justice Attempts To Be Served In “American Trial: The Eric Garner Story”

When Eric Garner died back in 2014, it was a tragedy. More than that, it may have been a crime. New York City Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo was notoriously not charged by a Grand Jury on Staten Island with the man’s death. The words “I can’t breathe” from Garner sparked protests and demonstrations nationwide. Now, a half decade later, a film is attempting to right that wrong. American Trial: The Eric Garner Story, is a hybrid work that tries to both serve justice, as well as showcase how the system may well be broken. It’s an ambitious and respectable idea, but it doesn’t quite work as cinema. Available to watch today, it’s an effort that deserves attention, but can’t pull off what it hopes to ultimately achieve.

The movie is an unscripted courtroom drama imagines the trial that never happened. For those who forget, Eric Garner was a Staten Island resident suspected of selling loose cigarettes on the street. Confronted by cops, a verbal back and forth ensued, until NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo put Garner in a choke hold. Garner eventually died from a lack of oxygen. In real life, a Grand Jury didn’t indict, but here, things move forward. Employing real-life prosecutors and defense attorneys to conduct a mock trial, using the real-life evidence, witnesses, expert testimony, and everything else that goes into our justice system. Officer Pantaleo, the defendant, is the only one who’s an actor, portrayed by Anthony Altieri. Esaw Snipes-Garner even testifies as herself. At the end, the audience is the jury, letting viewers decide whether Pantaleo should be found guilty or innocent. It’s an open ended verdict, one the Garner family, as well as the world, never got the chance to hear.

One can’t shake the unfortunate feeling that this film is more of a gimmick than a true piece of cinema. Part of it is the ending, which is seeking to engage with an audience, but just seems like a cheat. Then, there’s the involvement of Garner’s widow, playing herself. It really feels icky, even if she’s a willing participant. The footage at the end of her breaking down hammers that home. Then, there’s the trial structure, itself. Given only slightly more than an hour of screen time, and dedicated to not having any cinematic tropes, it comes off as selective information.

American Trial: The Eric Garner Story could have been something special. The idea has spectacular merits. It’s just in the execution that things fall flat. The mix of documentary and unscripted trial footage is a bit of a mess. The doc aspects are surface level and almost a second thought here, while the “trial” and unscripted interactions by the attorneys, etc, have their moments, but ultimately seem too stacked in one direction. That’s an issue for the movie, which filmmaker Roee Messinger clearly imagines as a call to action. There’s nothing wrong with that, but perhaps a fictional trial would have been a better vehicle for that?

Available today, American Trial: The Eric Garner Story is an interesting failure, that much is undeniable. Now, personally, I believe a crime was committed here. Does the film make that case? That might depend on your personal opinion, but just what’s on the screen, it’s iffy. Feel free to give it a look, but don’t expect any of your feelings to be changed. Garner’s death will remain a tragedy, while the fate of Pantaleo will be split among political ideologies, and that’s a shame. In the end, everyone loses here, sadly.

American Trial: The Eric Garner Story is in virtual theaters today.

(Photos courtesy of Passion River Films)

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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