APRIL 20, 2015
It’s hard to walk into Alison Armstrong‘s first feature-length documentary without bias or expectation. In cases involving profiling or the loss of life — cases like that of Jon Buice — pre-conceived notions are the norm. It’s a disturbing reverse-stereotype that clenches a fist around the hearts of even the most cautious and intellectual observer. And it’s exactly what Armstrong is counting on.
Just as the seemingly open-and-shut case of Jon Buice warranted nary a second glance from those responsible for its trial and adjudication, audiences are expected to save a seat for skepticism when sitting for The Guy With A Knife. At 17, Buice was convicted of murder in a homophobic stabbing that stood out above even the slew of crime that swept through Houston in 1991. Branded by the media as a targeted killing, the case never saw a courtroom.* Lawyers pushed Buice into a 45-year sentence on plea bargain, telling him that the coverage was “too hot,” and he was lucky to escape with even that lengthy sentence. Justice was done. Or so it seemed.
Years later, broadcaster Ray Hill, whose initial reaction to the news had been instrumental in the aforementioned media firestorm, finds himself fighting in support of Buice’s parole. A relationship sprouted from the exchange of advisory correspondence rapidly blossoms into an alliance in pursuit of truth and justice; two things taken for granted in the myth of America. The more Hill digs, the more skeptical he (and we by extension) becomes. While Buice certainly played a role in the death of Paul Broussard and is by no means absolved of that responsibility, evidence of his regret and reform burst forth in the spotlight of the first true detective work done on the case in years.
It is not my role to present the arguments so patiently assembled in The Guy With the Knife. Suffice it to say that I was able to release all of my reservations by the halfway mark of the film. Ingeniously, Armstrong had revealed in my own theater-going experience the forces she critiques in her examination of Buice’s case. I had not only assumed the guilt of the party in question, but written off his story with an air of superiority. He’s just a criminal; we can’t trust him. He’ll say anything to absolve himself of this heinous offense. Meeting him through the lens, however, it was rapidly apparent that none of my self-righteous suppositions bore weight.
Here was a man who, in spite of a flawed and oppressive system, had pursued every avenue of renewal and repentance as he bore the punishment for a crime that had been redefined for him by careless outside forces. Forces which seemed to neglect a series of extenuating circumstance and overlook any elements of the case that didn’t fit into their assumptions. Had Buice wielded the knife that earned him his sentence? Invariably. Was that knife guided by a malicious and specific desire to kill a man based on his identification? Was it, in point of fact, even the true cause of the man’s death? These questions remained sequestered in a courtroom that never assembled its jury.
Objective yet accessible, The Guy with the Knife refrains from heavy-handed attempts to solve the case or preach its defects to us. Rather than shouting into the din of the forces it criticizes, this documentary softly and patiently mitigates the polarizing dialogue in search of deeper conversation. It asks us to reflect on the power of a media that positions itself as an ultimate authority without the resources to be such a thing, analyzing in turn the role of perception in our justice system and the flaws that accompany it. This is one of those rare cases that desperately needs to be appealed, but remains gagged by a system of distrust and assumption. A system that Armstrong kindly asks us to put on trial.
*Note from the director: A jury trial took place in 1995 wherein the victim’s mother sued the 10 kids involved for wrongful death. However, this was a civil suit and she was awarded $10 million in damages, but settled out of court with the insurance companies since these were minors. While there was no jury trial in 1992, we felt it important to include this information in the name of full disclosure.