by Jeremy Rogers
Film festivals like Heartland are perfect places for careers to be launched and for new stories to be heard. Wade Gardner is experiencing this firsthand with the US premiere of his breakout film, Marvin Booker Was Murdered. Though Gardner is making his voice heard for the first time, the story he tells is tragically common and increasingly relevant.
On July 9, 2010, at a little past 3:30 am, an unarmed, homeless pastor was killed inside a Denver prison after five guards restrained him, electrocuted him for 20 seconds with a stun gun, then denied the man life-saving first aid. The city of Denver thought that Marvin Louis Booker was a nobody, that his life would matter to others as much as it had mattered to them.
They could not have been more wrong.
Marvin came from a family of African American pastors and ministers who were active participants in the Civil Rights movement. Marvin marched with Dr. King when he was just 14 years old in 1968. Marvin Booker Was Murdered is the living tale of how Marvin’s family revived that protestor spirit to get justice for their fallen son and brother.
Marvin Booker Was Murdered makes heavy usage of interviews with the family and acquaintances of Marvin as well as his family’s attorney. Most of the interviews are not undercut by any music. This choice is effective in underscoring the emptiness that the family feels in the face of their loss and of the city of Denver’s lack of concern with the life and death of Marvin Louis Booker.
The narrative weaved through the recounting of events by Marvin’s family highlights the struggle against the city of Denver. The lengths that the city went to in order to discourage the family is astounding. For instance, the city withheld the footage from inside the jail for weeks which turned into months. When the family finally received word from Denver that they and their attorneys would be able to see the jail footage, they were dismayed to learn that the City had chosen the day after Mother’s Day to show Marvin Booker’s mother the recording of her son’s murder.
Remarkably, the Booker family is not the only side given a voice in this documentary; the city of Denver’s Lawyer has interview segments interspersed throughout the film. The director revealed that all the lawyer knew was that he was being filmed for a documentary, but he never bothered to even ask the title of the film. If he had, he probably never would have given the line, “This man’s heart was waiting to give out.” Needless to say, this man provided an arrogant villain that is usually uncommon in documentaries yet tragically common for families in the Bookers’ position.
The apex of the film both artistically and emotionally was when the footage from inside of the correctional facility was shown from the time Marvin was called from his seat to the moment the five correctional officers left the holding cell where Marvin lay dead. The entire sequence takes about five-and-a-half minutes, and throughout each drawn-out second, a medley of spirituals sung by a choir. The religious themes serve to highlight Booker’s ministerial background. The lyrics of Swing Low Sweet Chariot never seemed so appropriately rendered as when they played over police killing an unarmed, homeless minister and bearing his lifeless body into a holding cell, starting a series of mass protests. “Comin’ for to carry me home,” indeed.
Despite the gripping legal narrative, the moving accounts from the Booker family, and the skillful use of archival footage of mass protests that rocked Denver, there are a few filmmaking missteps. At a few points during the interviews, it seems that the tripod on which the camera was mounted got jostled, immediately reminding the audience that they were in a theater. Toward the end one of the interview segments features an interviewee with a mic that’s sensitivity is much too high. The subject can be heard swallowing between each emotion-filled phrase. These mistakes are incredibly few, but they do stick out as pock marks on an otherwise spectacular film.
Overall, the camerawork doesn’t go out of its way to call attention to itself; the subject of the film does not belong to director Wade Gardner. It is a heartfelt product of a family still struggling to find justice. At the Q&A session after the film, Marvin’s younger brother, a minister hard at work on his PhD, revealed that the city’s new DA has recently impaneled a grand jury to consider charges of obstruction of justice relating to the incidents relating to Marvin Booker’s death.
Like Marvin’s childhood hero said:
“There can be no great social gain without individual pain. And before the victory for brotherhood is won, some will have to get scarred up a bit. Before the victory is won, some more will be thrown into jail. Before the victory is won, some, like Medgar Evers, may have to face physical death. But if physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children and their white brothers from an eternal psychological death, then nothing can be more redemptive.”
Oddly prophetic and sadly true.
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Marvin Booker Was Murdered
Despite some minuscule hiccups, Wade Gardner's debut film “Marvin Booker Was Murdered” stands as a sobering, truthful look at the effects of police brutality and institutional indifference.