NEWS

Screening Jacksonville’s Violence

Documentary on murder capital still resonates two years later

After Beverly McClain’s son, Andre Johnston (pictured at right with his mother), was murdered in 2005, she founded Parents of Slain Children, where she created a memorial of people killed in Jacksonville — most of them from gun violence.
Casey Griffin
By
Posted

6 p.m. March 26

MOSH, 1025 Museum Circle. Downtown

The bullets came quickly, and Richard Collier did not know what was happening. Smoke and noise filled his red Cadillac Escalade before he became unconscious, hovering between life and death for more than two weeks.

Collier’s emotional testimony in the trial of his attacker is one of the most dramatic elements in the documentary, “The 904: Shadow on the Sunshine State.”

The film, which has been out since 2011, has been shown several times locally, but now it has been picked up for distribution in Arizona, California, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, with a guaranteed minimum of 16 screenings, said Melissa Ross, the film’s executive producer and a producer and host of “First Coast Connect” on WJCT 89.9-FM.

At the time the film was made in 2011, Duval County was the murder capital of Florida. Unfortunately, it has regained that title. The county has held the top ranking among the state’s large cities, except in 2010 when Miami edged into the lead.

In a hushed courtroom on Dec. 17, 2009, Collier wept as he described the injuries inflicted on him by the shooting — a leg amputated, paralysis from the waist down, six bullets still in his body and the loss of his dream of playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“The last year of my life has been very hard. A year ago last September when Tyrone Hartsfield put 14 bullet wounds in my body, my life was forever changed,” Collier said as he read his victim impact statement in Hartsfield’s trial.

Collier wept and struggled to speak, when he said, “When I get married, I can’t stand to watch my bride come down the aisle. If I have boys someday, I won’t be able to teach them how to play football.”

In a telephone interview with Folio Weekly, Collier said, “I just wanted to get my justice and move forward.”

The film has been making the rounds in Northeast Florida at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, the Main Library and Sun-Ray Cinema, and Diginext Films recently selected it for limited theatrical release. Another local showing is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. March 26 at WJCT Studios on the Northbank.

“All of the issues that were relevant just a few years ago are still relevant today. It continues to generate some interest,” Ross said.

“We followed several stories, but one of the most prominent ones was Richard Collier,” she added.

Since his shooting, Collier said he often talks to children about making the right choices; he's concerned about the proliferation of guns in society.

“It’s a bad situation. Something definitely needs to be done,” Collier said, adding he supports stricter background checks on gun buyers. “Everybody is carrying them now. It’s a sad deal.”

Despite the devastating injuries Collier sustained, he said he's been working to become totally independent and plans to eventually walk. He already drives.

“Life is what you make it. I have a beautiful wife, beautiful family. I have nothing to complain about,” he said.

Community activist and local civil rights leader Alton Yates, who has a major role in the film, he remains worried about gun violence in Jacksonville and around the country.

“We’ve got to curtail the availability of firearms,” Yates said. “We’ve got to find ways to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. There is an epidemic out there and we need to do something about it.”

He supports the ban on assault-type rifles.

“There is absolutely no valid justification for anyone but military personnel having access to assault rifles,” Yates said. “An assault weapon is a weapon of mass destruction.”

In the powerful documentary, Beverly McClain talks about forming Parents of Slain Children after her son was murdered on June 23, 2005. Her mission is to support, comfort and counsel mothers and families who have lost children to violence.

The organization’s headquarters is home to a memorial wall, commemorating the names of slain sons and daughters. The number of names continues to grow.

She said she has seen a recent increase in gun violence and murder in Jacksonville.

“I pray every day that someone will come up with a solution,” she said. “We are losing our young people. We are losing our working people. It is crazy out there.”

Ross said she was deeply affected by her work on Jacksonville Journey, Mayor John Peyton’s 2008 anti-crime initiative. She said she wanted the documentary to put a human face on the murder and crime rate devastating families and tearing apart the community. Helping her were filmmakers Frank B. Goodin II and Bernardo Santana III.

“We were trying to bring home to people how this issue is impacting local families,” Ross said.

Since its release, the film has earned a Suncoast Emmy, Best Audience Film at the International Black Film Festival of Nashville and Award of Merit Documentary Film at the Accolade Competition. It was also an official selection of the Jacksonville Film Festival.

“Poverty, high rates of family breakdown, challenges of public education — these are universal issues we need to confront,” Ross said. “We felt if we could make the stories real, it would affect people and that would provide a better motivation for positive change,” she added.

The film, featuring original hip-hop music by local artists and an original score by Matthew Martin, took more than a year to shoot and put together. And it went through a couple of edits before filmmakers ended up with the current version.

Richard Collier believes the filmmakers did an amazing job.

“I am proud to be a part of it,” he said.

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