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Most documentaries addressing social injustice do so with the intent to create discussion and inspire change. But the director and producers of HBO’s Valentine Road — about the shooting death of 15-year-old Larry King — took that intent one step further Wednesday night. Following a screening of the documentary at the Museum of Tolerance, director Marta Cunningham was part of a panel discussion that led the audience in a dialogue about race, tolerance, abuse and how to initiate changes.
Cunningham’s unflinching exploration of the King case — in which his classmate, Brandon McInerney, shot him at point-blank range over an ill-received valentine overture — screened to an audience of supporters, educators and activists. Afterward, Cunningham was joined onstage by Mario Ceballos, the human relations commissioner for L.A. County; actor and activist Wilson Cruz; Dr. Jeff Sapp, a professor of education at California State University, Dominguez Hills; and Judge Scott Gordon, head of family law at L.A. Superior Court.
“From the moment I read about the story, I couldn’t stop thinking about Larry,” Cunningham told the audience. “I had empathy for the child who was killed for exploring his nature, and I had empathy for the child who identified as a white supremacist. And I couldn’t let go of either of them. Making the film was an overwhelming experience. And I wanted viewers to go through the process of taking it personally — as I did, as an African-American. But I thought it was important to take the high road and push my boundaries to explore the story.”
As Ceballos pointed out, Cunningham’s film was able to show what he called “the silence of the bystander,” explaining, “We really need to help people through the process and help people to understand that what’s different from you isn’t a threat. But sometimes people don’t have the tools to deal with aggression that can arise in those situations.” Ceballos also related his own coming-out story, sharing that family members encouraged him to give his dad time to come to terms with his revelation. Ceballos encouraged everyone to remember what it was like for McInerney, too — reminding everyone of his father’s physical abuse and issues with drugs, pointing out that McInerney also had issues to contend with that led to his intolerance of King’s identity.
But that’s not good enough for Cruz. “The conversation about Larry has gone away, but his story continues to happen,” the actor and activist said. “I understand the film was asking us to look at all the circumstances, but only one kid committed a crime. Having a crush and trying to figure out who you are isn’t a crime.”
On the subject of the legal system’s controversial handling of the case, Judge Gordon felt Cunningham accurately depicted the intricacies of trying McInerney and zeroed in on the film’s look at domestic violence. As many in the audience questioned McInerney’s eventual settlement, Gordon shared some sobering facts. “I supervise 44 judges who specialize in family law and domestic abuse cases, and each one of those judges has 1,500 cases they’re dealing with,” he said.
But what about the jury for the case – some of whom were showcased in the film supporting McInerney’s decision to kill King by saying, “He was solving a problem”? As Gordon put it, “This is the complexity of the jury system, which gives the community the right to have a voice in the system. If you don’t like it, the next time you get that little notice in the mail, show up and make your voice heard.”
One of the most difficult aspects of the film to digest was the lack of support and foresight on behalf of the teachers, who foundered in how to help students both before and after the tragedy. Sapp empathized with the struggle but insisted a deeper conversation with educators needs to be encouraged. “The transformation of the teaching comes from the transformation in the heart of the teacher,” he told the crowd.
The discussion continued for well over an hour, with each panelist addressing the complexities of the situation in conjunction with the audience, who joined in by asking how best to address the issues raised in the film. Cunningham noted that the film was screened earlier in the day to 100 local high school students, who were then led in their own discussions about the film.
During the reception afterward, producer Eddie Schmidt was candid about how the experience of making the movie affected him. “I’m a parent, so I certainly had to think about being the parent of a school-age child. So you think about, ‘Could this happen?’ ” he said. “And then you think as a parent in telling your story, ‘How do you tell this to your children as they’re growing up?’ “
Added producer Sasha Alpert: “It was an incredibly complex story to tell, because on one hand there was a child who was shot down in cold blood, and on the other hand there’s another kid who is, at age 14, facing the possibility of spending all of his life in jail. That didn’t seem fair, and neither did the crime. I knew we were getting into an incredibly complex story that would wind up asking more questions than it answered.”
One person who still had questions was producer Alan Ball, who attended the event in support of Cunningham. Though Ball knew of the story, he wasn’t aware of the media’s over-simplification of the facts until seeing Cunningham’s film and called it “tragic, moving and heartbreaking.” But also of interest to him was Cunningham’s approach in showing both sides of the two boys’ stories.
“As an openly gay man, it’s easy to demonize others who are against us, but that’s just what they’re doing to us,” Ball said. “But as this film points out, we need to start seeing everyone as humans who are capable of both good and evil. We’re all a product of our history and environment. But this will be a movie I’ll be thinking about for a long time.”
Valentine Road premieres Oct. 7 on HBO.
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