Murder on a Sunday Morning – an Ideal Documentary Film

Essay on Murder on a Sunday Morning

Murder on a Sunday Morning (Un Coupable Idéal in French) is a documentary film by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, a French movie maker. The subject is the Brenton Butler’s criminal case, in which the fifteen-year-old boy was wrongfully accused of the murder. The film was awarded the Academy Award for the best documentary film in 2002. A tense judicial drama, narrated with the cold restraint of the documentary genre, opens to viewers a series of observations about an American justice system.

The Afro-American teenager was accused of robbing and killing a white old woman. On May 7, 2000, an elderly white tourist Mary Anne Stevens was shot in front of her husband in Jacksonville, Florida. A white woman was killed with a bullet in her head. Two hours later, the police arrested Brenton Butler, a fifteen-year-old boy, walked nearby. The only witness was her husband of the deceased woman and he identified him. Butler signed the confession at the police station then and took the guilt on him. Everybody in the prosecutor’s office, reporters, and the judge were ready to condemn Butler in advance, but his defender Patrick McGuinness discovered shocking facts about this investigation step by step. Did Brenton Butler himself write his confession? And above all, can the police lie?

The film director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade filmed the trial of the teenager with a story how the police had extorted confessions from the boy after the murder. Brenton only had a bad luck to go through there and to have a black color of his skin. That was “sufficient” to blame him for the murder and to make an ideal accused of him. For investigators, the story was as commonplace as an example: a marginal kid came stupidly to spoil his life with the risk of the life imprisonment.

Murder on a Sunday Morning took us to the heart of the courtroom, where two attorneys, pugnacious characters who were fighting for the police impunity. Brenton was silent, he used to say nothing, or almost nothing, as the silent incarnation of all victims of judicial errors, remembered Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. Brenton was soon barricaded behind a defensive smile and kept disturbed in his silence, unable to express himself.

In 2012, ten years later, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade went to Brenton. For him, it was a strange feeling to measure the time elapsed when discovering this young man of 27 years old, the real estate agent, married and father of his family. In a few words, he was telling how he was arrested one morning without any reason in the street, beatings by policemen in the depths of the wood. His life meant nothing for those who incriminated him. For the first time, the young man who spent six months in prison at the age of 15 years old before the proof of his innocence was found.

What was the impact of a film on reality? The film helped consolidate the Afro-American minors in the state of Florida. Without trying to flatten the complexity, the film approaches us to this irreducible mystery of painful points of the system, whereas Brenton was confused suddenly after the question: “What makes you happy?” The young man was surprised, trying to find an answer, before giving up without being able to find the right words.

After the 9/11 film of Naudet brothers, with an impressive presentation in vivo of the attacks on September 11, 2001, Murder on a Sunday Morning is another French documentary that aroused the interest of Americans. The question could then be: what does make Americans to like a French documentary movie? For Naudet brothers, the answer seems obvious: the live recording of the dramatic events belongs to the same category of films as Zapruder’s film by his Super 8 camera about the President Kennedy’s assassination. Images of the history that fix the drama in the human memory are a mixture of intimate and spectacular points, on which the man returns every time when there is an option how to act, doing evil or good.
Atonement is the mainspring of much of an American cinema. This is the same as a preparation for prayer and a promise to meet together after the drama. Recording the evil happening, Naudet brothers were performing live and for real what the Hollywood cinema presents for false most often afterward. Murder on a Sunday Morning became an exceptional document, the film was interesting to the American audience because it sticks perfectly to the canons of the Hollywood cinema where the real is always caught in the net of a scenario. The Lestrade’s film joins a whole Hollywood movie tradition and denounces the American judicial system by taking up the two-storied scriptural logic already implemented in court fictions: returning to the scene of the crime and the trial as a fight. This viewpoint of the director to make the fiction real at all costs is very strong. It is worth to remember the careful demonstration of the justice miscarriage undertaken by the defender of the young adolescent in the course of the trial.

The police methods to interrogate the suspect and extort confessions from him are dissected as rare and terror seizes spectators seeing such an unworthiness of the system. The spectacle, when policemen were lying is particularly frightening, especially the evidence of a black investigator who forced the young suspect to confess to the crime, who denied to have used the violence to achieve his goals before the court with extraordinary aplomb, while photographs attest the blows during interrogation. The policemen questioned about their investigation looked like shabby and unconscious cops. So, the director even said that the American viewers sometimes believed that the scenes of lawsuits have been reconstructed.
Paradoxically, it seems that this remark speaks more against that than for the film. Indeed, by blurring the borders between the documentary and the fiction, the director of this film wanted to show the character of each participant – the strength of the lawyer’s words, the lying aplomb of the police, the restraint of the young suspect, etc. The director ends up trivializing the event, acting according to the banal logic to defend the innocence from the evil. Murder on a Sunday Morning is perhaps also an ideal documentary film.