By Danny Peary
You probably remember hearing about the tragic incident on the west coast. On February 12, 2008, in a classroom at E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard, California, a fifteen-year-old boy named Larry King was shot and killed by another student, Brandon McInerney, who was humiliated when King asked him to be his valentine in front of his macho buddies. The hate crime got attention for being an extreme example of intolerance against gays and transgenders, but soon was forgotten. Many of us assumed that the school and community were so broken up that everyone pledged to fight harder against bigotry and homophobia in Larry King’s memory and to make sure Brandon McInerney was properly vilified and sent to prison until his hair turned gray. But we were wrong. To see what really transpired, tune in to HBO on Monday night for the television debut of Valentine Road. This fascinating documentary, which was acclaimed at Sundance and other festivals earlier this year, is the directorial debut of Marta Cunningham (pictured, below right) and was produced by Sasha Alpert (Autism: the Musical; pictured below, left) and Eddie Schmidt. A few weeks ago, I did the following interview with Cunningham and Alpert in New York City.
Danny Peary: Marta, in the production notes you say, “I first heard about Larry King and the tragic circumstances of his death from a small article in the Southern Poverty Law Center Magazine.” What filmmaker reads that?
Marta Cunningham (laughing): I do! The Southern Poverty Law Center started during the Civil Rights Era and is historical. I grew up with it being the Mecca because my parents were Civil Rights activists.
Sasha Alpert: The Southern Poverty Law Center is in Montgomery, Alabama, and next week we’re actually screening Valentine Road there. So that’s kind of going full circle.
MC: The first place was firebombed in the seventies, and it’s still constantly being threatened, so the security there is insane and it’s basically a compound. What they do now in their journal is encompass all types of civil rights and human rights issues in this country. I was so happy to have stumbled across that article.
DP: When you first came upon that article did you ask why this story about a straight kid killing a gay kid because he asked him to be his valentine wasn’t really, really well-known?
MC: Exactly. Why am I reading this in just the Southern Poverty Law Center’s quarterly magazine instead of today’s newspapers?
DP: I know that first article led you to the Newsweek cover story, “Young, Gay, and Murdered.” Were you looking for a project?
MC: At the time, I was looking for things to possibly write about. I also wanted to get into an AFI workshop, and the requirement was to do a short. But after I started doing the research, and sitting in on Brandon’s hearings at the Ventura courthouse, talking to his attorneys, and talking to some kids who knew Larry and Brandon, I realized that this could be a great subject for a documentary. Everything was unfolding right then, so I switched gears pretty quickly.
DP: But the trial lasted 3½ years?
MC: Yes, the pre-trial motions, the hearings, and all that took that long. Brandon’s defense attorneys were relentless about trying to the case moved to juvenile court rather than have him tried as an adult.
DP: Why did this particular case strike you so much that you’d spend four years making a film about it?
MC: I fell in love with Larry, this child. He could have been my brother, son, or a friend I grew up with, and I felt that he needed an advocate. I think all of us who worked on the film felt that way. We wanted to create a film that reflected how we saw him, which was that he was a wonderful young human being. It just disturbed me on a core level that our society had not taken an interest in telling the true story. The story that they instead chose to tell in the media actually seemed to blame him for his own death. So I really wanted everyone to look at the whole, true picture.
DP: Sasha, why did you join the project?
SA: I actually heard about the story when it happened. What surprised and really intrigued me and BMP Films is that it happened so close to LA, which we think of as being a very open-minded place. I think that is what drew me to it, that this could happen right around the block. I was drawn to the elements of the story that Marta put into her film. First, there was Larry’s absolutely horrible early life. And then there was Brandon’s equally horrible upbringing. And there was nobody around to help either one of them. There was intolerance that led to a tragedy, and then there was the issue of Brandon being tried as an adult. Human rights issues abound in this film and issues dealing with adults not taking care of children.
DP: How did you two get together on this?
MA: For about a year and a half I was working on it, and then I met Eddie Schmidt, the other producer.
SA: Eddie and I had been looking for a project to work together on for a few years, and when he brought me this, I said. “Yeah, this is absolutely it.”
DP: It took a long time to make. Were you ever worrying that you couldn’t pull it off because at first you didn’t have access to key people like Brandon’s mother and brother and didn’t know what kind of footage was available?
MC (laughing): I’m sure the producers felt that way!
SA: I think the scariest time for me was after there was a hung jury. Then we didn’t know what the next part of the film was going to be. It could have taken years to retry the case and maybe it would end in a hung jury again. It was confusing for everyone where to go next. And it was so hard emotionally that there was a hung jury because there had been a murder and everyone knew who did it.
MC: It wasn’t a good ending. I had to take a moment because I was wrecked. I had sat through nine weeks of that trial and then to have a hung jury! It was a very difficult emotional experience to make this film anyway, and then to have no resolution was so hard to take. I was like, “Okay, let’s just talk about what is probably going to happen.” Because I had formed a relationship with the prosecutor, Maeve Fox, I got the inside scoop that the two sides were leaning toward making a deal regarding Brandon’s sentencing. It turned out be good for all of us, I think.
DP: I won’t divulge what the deal was. But one of the many interesting things about your movie is that viewers, including me, aren’t sure what we want to happen to Brandon, we don’t know what trial verdict is best. And, before changing my mind, I agreed for a time with the defense attorneys that maybe he should be tried in juvenile court. Were you feeling the same thing?
MC: Yeah, definitely. Eddie, Sasha, our executive producer Jon Murray and I were all really torn. It was a really upsetting journey on many levels. The concept of trying a child as an adult in the state of California was one of the main reasons they had a hung jury, but what was really upsetting was the bigger reason some jurors wouldn’t convict Brandon. It wasn’t because Brandon was a kid, but because they went along with the defense’s argument that Larry was a sexual harasser! That the jurors accepted this was very disturbing.
SA: Marta would come back to the office and say, “You can’t believe what I heard at the trial today.” Then I’d go and I couldn’t believe what I heard either. She said things were being turned around and there was homophobia going on.
DP: In the film we recognize the homophobia of jurors who fell for Brandon and anti-gay teachers at E.O. Green Junior High.
SA: It didn’t all make it into the film–partly because we didn’t interview every teacher at the school–but teachers took the stand and said things that were shocking. And there were so many of them! There obviously was a prevailing wind blowing over the school.
DP: And the one teacher who was sympathetic to Larry and was present when he was killed was fired. It comes across in your film that the other teachers, and other people in Oxnard were glad that Brandon got the “problem” out of the way, so they didn’t have to deal with this boy who didn’t hide his feminine nature.
MC: One of the jurors actually says that Brandon was the solution to a problem. That was really disturbing and I will never will fully understand that kind of thinking. It’s shocking to hear someone accept that as a rationalization for a human being’s life being taken. It was hard sit across from a teacher and listen to her tell you that a child who liked glitter, make-up, a purse, and Target heels, was a threat to her understanding of what a boy should be.
DP: Why do you think Larry was attracted to Brandon enough to ask him to be his valentine?
MC: Brandon was cute. That’s all. I was told by a couple of kids that it was just a Truth-or-Dare situation. Larry was sitting with some girls, and they were goofing around, and they said, “We know you like this boy so go ask him to be your valentine.” He was like, “Fine, I’ll do it.” It was a dare, really nothing more that that. These were just junior high kids, very young kids, and none of them had even dated. It was harmless but the media made it seem Brandon was threatened by Larry.
SA: And Larry was a very small kid and Brandon was about 6’1″.
DP: Adding to the tragedy is that Larry was no longer an unhappy kid. He wasn’t a kid who felt suicidal because of his sexuality but was comfortable in his own body. He was a kid you wanted to watch grow up and be a bright example for many in the same situation.
SA: He was very inspirational. For kids and adults, it’s very hard to muddle through life when you feel the world’s against you, yet Larry was so strong and solid in his core and was able to deal with so much negativity and so many setbacks and still be essentially a happy person.
MC: The woman where he lived says he came home every day skipping and singing. He was this beautiful, giving child. I found out that he knitted scarves for war veterans, for Christmas presents. He brought flowers to people who were having bad days. One kid told me that once when she was having a bad day at school, he sang “Amazing Grace” to her. He really was a special kid.
DP: The school didn’t even offer the kids any grief counseling after Larry was shot, indicating they’d didn’t think his death was important enough for that.
SA: A child was murdered in Oxnard and the adults there who were supposed to take care of the kids at the school in the aftermath were so thoughtless.
DP: Your film is populated by kids who are dealing with issues that even adults can’t handle.
MC: So many adults failed in this situation. It’s clear why it’s not the title now, but originally we thought of calling it, “It Takes a Village.” It really shows the failure of so many adults to reach out to these kids who needed them so much.
DP: The production notes describe Larry as “the victim of a hate crime that grabbed national headlines and dramatically changed the lives of students, teachers and the community.” But doesn’t your film point out that the community kind of swept the crime under the rug?
MC: It’s not mentioned at school. The kids told me that the adults just wanted to forget that it ever happened and never mention it. But the kids really are so tremendous because they’ve refused to let it die. They’re like, no no no no, this did happen. We lost a friend, the school lost a student. We show the tree that was donated by a nursery in his honor, that the adults don’t want to acknowledge as having anything to do with him. And even though some of Larry’s friends didn’t really know Brandon and are shocked by what he did, they still think of him as a kid and one of them. I think the kids represent a lot of how the community feels, that they lost two children. When you talk to the kids and you talk to the parents who had to go through this experience with their children, they might not have understood Larry or accepted Larry, but they certainly didn’t want anything bad to happen to him. There wasn’t the kind of animosity that we hear from the teachers and the jurors. The teachers and the school is a separate community with its own thing happening. And the jurors were not actually of the community but were Los Angelenos who live in Chatsworth.
DP: When we first learn about Larry’s death early in the film we are totally against Brandon. Then we can think the film is going to put us on his side, too, by presenting his sad background and then bringing in his defense lawyers who are against kids being tried as adults in California and receiving stiff prison sentences. But then we see Brandon is violent in prison and learn that he is a skinhead and that the lawyers who swoon over him are a bit loony. It’s very interesting how the film repeatedly makes us change our perspective.
MC: Yes, I created a film to reflect the journey that I took. I wanted you to go through the journey I went through, every day. That was really important, and Sasha and Eddie were behind me on that. You are sympathetic toward Brandon and then you see these Nazi drawings that he did, and they’re so disturbing and so upsetting–and he still thinks that way. He still believes that white people are intellectually superior to other races. That’s his belief system. Then you talk to his family and you understand why he is that way to a certain degree. You also are told why they love him so much, and how they’re never going to give up on him.
DP: Is he a tragic figure, like Larry?
MC: No. I think it’s a tragedy what happened to Brandon, but I would never excuse his choice to kill Larry, because it was a deliberate choice. He forgot the gun that day and went back inside the house to get it. He had twenty minutes to think it over, and he didn’t change his mind.
DP: A great moment in the movie is when a few female members of the jury talk about Brandon’s doodling. They can rationalize that his drawing Nazi insignia is understandable because “boys like to draw,” but they can’t rationalize anything Larry did that was strange to them. Nothing.
MC: It’s amazing. They truly related to Brandon like a son.
DP: When you filmed those former jury members raving about Brandon, what were you thinking?
MC: I was excited because they were revealing what I thought that they thought. Because I couldn’t film them during the trial, I had no proof until they let it out to each other.
SA: If they’re willing to gloat about Brandon in front of the camera, it shows they’re proud to adore him.
DP: It’s interesting that Maeve Fox admits she picked a lousy jury.
MC: She owns up to it. I felt for her, as a human being. She carries this with her today, still.
DP: It’s not only the members of that jury who think like this.
MC: Yes, but like Sasha said, when you live in California and surround yourself with certain kinds of individuals, you don’t realize that the person next to you in Starbucks doesn’t think the same way. I grew up in Southern California and though I know there are pockets of people who aren’t so liberal, I just didn’t realize the amount of animosity there is. It’s just hatred, really. I can’t see it any other way because there’s no way for people to rationalize and make it okay to kill a child who did nothing wrong. No one knew who Brandon was or the tragedy that he was living in at home, because he kept that from everyone, but you still can’t say what he did to Larry was okay.
DP: When did you finish your film?
SA (laughing): In January, minutes before Sundance.
DP: Five years have passed since Larry’s death and Brandon’s trial. And nine months have passed since you finished editing the film before taking it to Sundance and on the festival circuit. So what are your thoughts as it debuts on HBO on Monday?
MC: I’m really interested to see the reaction it’s going to have. What will viewers take from this film that asks more questions than it answers? As I told people at festivals: I want to ask: How are you going to help people like Larry? How will you help change things for them?
SA: The biggest hope I have is that it reaches kids in that demographic, kids in junior high, kids that can still stop themselves from being bigoted, and of course kids who are just beginning to realize that they could be gay or transgendered and need to know that there are other people in the world like them. We also want to reach out to people that could be advocates for them. Our hope is that everyone realizes we’re all the same in the end, that we’re all just trying to do the best we can.
DP: So you want a positive outcome for the movie.