In North Carolina, in 1984, a young while newspaper reporter, Deborah
Skyes, was brutally murdered. Based on an ID made by a former Klan
member, 19 year old Darryl Hunt was charged. No physical evidence
linked Hunt to the crime. Hunt was convicted by an all white jury, and
sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1994, DNA testing cleared Hunt, yet
he would spend another ten years behind bars. This exclusive portrait
of a harrowing wrongful conviction offers a provocative and haunting
examination of a community - and a criminal justice sytem - subject to
racial bias and tainted by fear.
Awards: Sundance Official Selection 2006
Notes: Darryl Hunt to be here in person for Sat, Feb 4, 7pm screening
[get a ticket - Feb 1, 6:45pm]
[get a ticket - Feb 4, 7pm]
The Trials of Darryl Hunt
A Break Thru Films production in association with HBO Documentary
Films. Produced by Katie Brown, William Rexer II, Ricki Stern, Annie
Sundberg. Executive producers, Stern, Sundberg.
Directed by Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg.
With: Darryl Hunt, Mark Rabil, Larry Little, Sammy Mitchell, Donald
Tisdale, James Ferguson, April Hunt, Dean Bowman, Phoebe Zerwick.
By JUSTIN CHANG
Advocacy cinema at its most searingly direct, "The Trials of Darryl
Hunt" is a powerful and unsettling chronicle of the 20-year struggle to
free a man twice convicted of a crime he didn't commit. Straightforward
in its presentation of a drama that requires no embellishment, docu
sketches a quietly damning portrait of a North Carolina community
divided by a horrific crime and its racially charged aftermath, with a
laserlike intensity that will have auds' blood boiling. Pic's impact is
unlikely to be diluted by the small screen when it debuts on HBO next
More than a decade in the making, "Trials" is a textbook example of the
rewards that come about from the patient pursuit of justice -- and the
patient pursuit of an explosive real-life story. Director-producers
Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg first turned their cameras on Hunt's
case in the mid-'90s, nearly a decade after his first conviction for
the 1984 rape and murder of Deborah Sykes of Winston-Salem, N.C.
In the words of Hunt's longtime defense attorney Mark Rabil, the idea
of a white woman assaulted by a black man provoked an outcry for
vengeance that "evoked the image of a lynching."
Docu reconstructs the tragedy via a nonsensationalistic weave of
crime-scene photos, newspaper coverage and a recording of an extremely
questionable 911 phone call that first led police to suspect the
19-year-old Hunt. Two other men with criminal records -- Hunt's friend
Sammy Mitchell and the 911 caller, Johnny Gray -- were also on the
police's radar, but it was Hunt who was prosecuted in 1985, with a
death-penalty recommendation, after refusing to testify against
The first trial and all its attendant missteps -- lack of physical
evidence, unreliable eyewitnesses (one with ties to the Ku Klux Klan),
botched police lineups, the selection of an almost all-white jury --
are discussed in sharp, comprehensible detail through interviews with
Rabil; Larry Little, a Winston-Salem city official and friend of
Hunt's; and Hunt himself, who always maintained his innocence, even
turning down a plea bargain.
Convicted and sentenced to life in prison, Hunt won a second trial in
1989, but was again convicted. The case was closed until 1994, when a
DNA test proved the semen taken from Sykes' body was not Hunt's --
evidence that was deemed inconclusive. It was at this time that Stern,
Sundberg and cinematographer William Rexer II began filming the court
proceedings and the defense's continual efforts to exonerate Hunt,
resulting in some of the pic's most spontaneous and devastating
moments. (Later footage was shot on DV by John Foster, Alan Jacobsen
and Shannon Kennedy.)
Appeals to both the North Carolina and U.S. Supreme Courts over the
next decade came to naught, leaving Rabil, Little and Hunt's other
supporters the difficult task of finding the real perpetrator.
As much as racism played a role in Hunt's scapegoating, the picture
that emerges of the Winston-Salem police department (which declined to
be interviewed) is one of institutional negligence and incompetence
rather than pure discrimination. Yet while its indictments are enough
to shatter anyone's faith in the system, "Trials" is also subtly
optimistic, acknowledging the persistent heroism of those who worked on
While their work is mostly seamless and unobtrusive, Stern and Sundberg
aren't afraid to go for the viewers' emotions at key moments, using
montage, slow-mo and voiceover with dramatic flair. Though it's trotted
out once too often, Paul Brill's score is memorably chilling, sounding
notes of purest dread.
Camera (color, 16mm, DV), William Rexer II, John Foster, Alan
Jacobsen, Shannon Kennedy; editor, Kennedy; music, Paul Brill; sound
(Dolby Digital), Brad Bergbom; visual effects supervisor, Yorgo
Alexopoulus. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 23,
2006. Running time: 113 MIN.
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