American Trial: The Eric Garner Story

Movie review by
Joyce Slaton, Common Sense Media
American Trial: The Eric Garner Story Movie Poster Image
Devastating look at a Black Lives Matter flash point.
  • NR
  • 2020
  • 100 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Aims to provide some measure of justice to the victim of what's either a brutal crime, a tragic accident, or both, depending on your point of view. Viewers will get a more thorough and nuanced view of this death and others like it. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Eric Garner had his troubles with the law, but viewers will see clearly that he was loved by many, particularly his grieving wife. We come to understand him better as an individual, see both his positive and negative aspects. Pantaleo isn't humanized as much, but viewers will better understand his viewpoint and actions, too. The professionals involved seem to be doing their best to present the facts and their conclusions honestly, treating Garner's death with gravity it deserves. 

Violence

Viewers see Garner's arrest repeatedly on real-life video that anchors the case, including once slowed down with actions analyzed. Footage shows Garner unconscious or perhaps dead, with officials trying to resuscitate him as he lies still on the sidewalk. A segment at the end shows Esaw Snipes-Garner breaking down in sobs after she learns details of her husband's death. 

Sex
Language

One "hell." 

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Garner's arrest was spurred by his sale of "loose" cigarettes, but no one is shown smoking or selling cigarettes. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that American Trial: The Eric Garner Story is a fictionalized movie based on a real-life arrest that resulted in the death of Eric Garner in 2014. The film imagines a court case that never took place, since the officer involved in Garner's death wasn't brought to trial in real life. In making this movie, everyone involved seems to be making efforts to provide a measure of justice to Garner, his loved ones, everyone concerned with his death. Viewers will gain a more nuanced view of this case and others like it. Violence is confined to actual footage of Garner's arrest and officials trying to resuscitate him as he lies unconscious (or perhaps already dead) on the street. But it's emotionally wrenching to watch Garner's real-life widow, Esaw Snipes-Garner, sob after learning new details of her husband's death. Garner's arrestable offense was selling "loose" cigarettes, but no one is shown smoking. Language is mild; expect to hear one "hell." Garner is humanized by those who testify at the trial: Viewers learn that he may have had his troubles with the law but are also reminded that his offenses hardly deserved such harsh punishment. Ultimately, Garner's death is treated with the gravity it deserves, and this movie makes viewers feel the tragedy. 

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What's the story?

In real life, Eric Garner died in 2014 after being arrested by Officer Daniel Pantaleo for selling loose cigarettes, though a Staten Island grand jury refused to indict Pantaleo for Garner's death. AMERICAN TRIAL: THE ERIC GARNER STORY imagines the trial that many wanted to see. Only one actor appears in American Trial: Anthony Altieri as Pantaleo. Otherwise, the defense team, prosecution, and judge are played by real-life attorneys. Real experts who might have testified at a Pantaleo trial appear to give evidence. And, most movingly, Garner's real-life widow, Esaw Snipes-Garner, appears to tell her side of the story in this painful, moving look at a criminal case that continues to reverberate.

Is it any good?

As a slice of wish fulfillment, this reimagining of the way the tragedy of Eric Garner's death could have proceeded is an absolute punch to the gut. By combining non-actors with real people from Garner's life and real news footage with fictional-yet-realistic scenes set in a courtroom, filmmaker Roee Messinger's take on this flash point in the police brutality protest movement becomes something compelling, awful, and impossible to look away from. It's a turn of events that never happened but so many wish had.

Viewers who've never seen the video of Garner's violent arrest will likely find it difficult to watch, but there are other moments of American Trial that are much, much worse. There's a brief video clip of officers and EMT workers trying to resuscitate a downed Garner as he lies unmoving, his eyes shut. And, worst of all, there's the devastating coda that ends American Trial, when Snipes-Garner breaks down in agonized tears after her filmed testimony, having been forced to listen to the details of her husband's death that she'd been able to avoid before. In between, viewers (and the jury) are taken through the basics of the use of force in arrests, the "seatbelt" hold vs. a chokehold, Garner's health problems, and Pantaleo's intent (as channeled by Altieri). This faux trial answers questions that you may not have even known you had. Lest you worry that watching a trial drama will be dry, know that American Trial is anythiung but: It's a painful, powerful, and emotionally resonant documentation of a uniquely American tragedy. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about American Trial'violence. How does it compare to violence in other movies? Does the fact that the movie is based on a true story affect the impact of the violence?

  • How do you feel about the inclusion of the footage of the real incident that inspired this movie? How did you react to it? What elements of American Trial's realism reached you emotionally? 

  • What's the difference between "based on a true story" and an actual true story? Does it matter whether everything in this movie actually happened? How could you find out which parts are fictionalized and which are real? 

Movie details

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