The Trials of Darryl Hunt (2007) dir. Ricki Stern, Anne Sundberg
I had the pleasure of watching “The Trials Darryl Hunt” a new documentary from ThinkFilm. The small New York/Toronto-based distributor has placed themselves in the forefront of this new era of theatrical documentaries (“Spellbound”, “Murderball”, “Born Into Brothels”). And indeed, “The Trials of Darryl Hunt” hits the mark of these other films. It tells the unbelievable story of Darryl Hunt’s 20-year fight to free himself from wrongful imprisonment of a crime he didn’t commit. It’s a compelling story of injustice, racism and the dedication of his friends and colleagues to set him free.
In Winston-Salem N.C. in 1984 newspaper editor Deborah Sykes, suffered the most heinous crime. On her way to work, just ten minutes from her office, she was brutally raped, sodomized and murdered. Her body was discovered at 2:00 in the afternoon that day. Darryl Hunt, a young black male, was fingered as the murderer. A sloppy trial based on a circumstantial evidence and an “eye witness” testimony from a Ku Klux Klan member convicted Hunt on first degree murder, which meant life in prison (that’s ‘real’ life, not the Canadian 25-year version).
Hunt’s cries of innocence do not go unnoticed by the outraged members of the black community – specifically Larry Little, a local city official and friend of Darryl’s who starts a fund to see his case reopened and appealed. Little and his organization of black citizens indeed get the case reopened in 1989, but this is only the beginning of the Odyssey. As the title suggests, Hunt endures trial after trial for 20 years before real justice is served.
Directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg use 10 years of their own lives to document the complete journey with a remarkable amount of TV news reports, data, court documents etc. It’s told completely straight with little stylish embellishments. Of course, the high bar for a film like this is Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line”, which used creative cinematic techniques and bold dramatic music to accompany his investigation. At first, I couldn’t help comparing the two, and thinking, “the music is kinda dull and the visuals are adequate at best,” but as the film moved along and gathered momentum these concerns disappeared. The drama is inherent to the details of the story. Dramatic music and stylish visuals were not necessary.
Some of the egregious police and legal oversights were shocking to hear. Other then the Ku Klux Klan eye witness, racism doesn’t seem to be an overt factor in the story. But it is. No one cared about Darryl Hunt. No one cared about the shoddy evidence which miraculously stuck to the case. Even when DNA testing proved Hunt did not rape Mrs. Sykes, he still could not get another trial. Perhaps the carelessness of the police investigation could have happened to anybody. But did they really care about another black man put in prison, wrongfully or not? No.
In a month when most distributors are releasing their horror films to video stores, ThinkFilm seems to be telling us to watch this movie as a horror film. And indeed there’s as much horror in this film as any of the “Saw” films. Enjoy.
PS. The film won the Documentary Audience Award at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.
Buy it here: The Trials of Darryl Hunt