The most stunning and enraging moment of remarkable access in Marta Cunningham’s Valentine Road (2013) doc comes late. It’s a seemingly cozy scene—a conversation, at a home on Trigger St, between two jurors and an alternate juror in the trial of teenager Brandon McInerney for his killing of classmate Larry King on February 12, 2008. These three bourgeois white women, extolling the cheapness of wine from Trader Joe’s, move on to the case, which ended in a mistrial (five jurors held out for manslaughter; seven backed the first-degree murder charge). “Where are the civil rights of the one being taunted by the person who is cross-dressing? … The school was so pro-Larry King’s civil rights;” “Larry didn’t get it. Had he followed [another teen’s self-suppressing] example, we wouldn’t be here today;” “[Brandon] had a plan to resolve this terrible problem … no one was taking care of this problem.” Their glib chat, as they casually cast judgment on the murder victim—his identity and “behaviour” reduced to favoured “civil rights” or a “problem” he “didn’t get”—curdles like bad milk in the bottom of the film’s kaleidoscopic glass.
Whiteness—and white-washing—sloshes through this documentary. In the Oxnard, CA class where King was murdered, the students were working on an assignment about Anne Frank. King was biracial; McInerney may have been influenced by white supremacist notions (a notebook of his had pages of drawings of swastikas, SS insignia and the like). A former teacher who told King to keep his gayness—though King was more likely trans—private is surrounded in her home by crosses and a painting of the Last Supper as she declares, “I can relate to Brandon. I don’t know if I would’ve taken a gun, but a good swift kick in the butt might have worked really well.” She wonders, as if talking about a shadowy conspiracy, “Who orchestrated that gay pride parade [in honour of King]?”
Just before those ex-jurors’ conversation, Cunningham (for this debut, she was embedded in Oxnard for almost five years) offers a fleeting shot of a peacock strutting across a sidewalk. And so much of the accusatory language swirling around King—shot twice at close range with a .22 by McInerney in a computer classroom—is of the “s/he was flaunting it” or “s/he was shoving it in our faces” kind of we-don’t-need-to-see-that homophobia. (It seems, in fact, that King had only been accessorizing and putting on makeup for about two weeks before his death.)
In teasing out the threads of intolerance, thinly veiled homophobia, and passed-down, simmering turmoil and anger—King was abused as a child and moved from group home to group home; McInerney grew up amid a longtime drug-addicted mother and an unstable, violent father—Valentine Road reveals the hypocrisies, neglect and passivity behind so much of the bullying and ill-treatment of King. The school did little for the kids who witnessed that classroom horror, it seems; the one teacher who seems to have cared about King gets quickly sidelined. Meanwhile, even one of McInerney’s defence attorneys has “Save Brandon” tattooed on her arm, though McInerney remains a dark void at the heart of the film. (The bright spots can be found in some of King’s classmates, articulate and emotional as they try to find their way through their post-traumatic pain.)
This film plumbs the pathetic depths of intolerance and distorted compassion in one of the supposedly most liberal states in the union. Valentine Road has one or two potholes—its few animation interludes, in particular, are hokey and awkward—but its panoramic and both-sides approach to a brutal, traumatizing act of retaliatory violence chills and stills the heart, as only the best truth-seeking documentaries can. V