By C.J. Hirschfield
April 21, 2022 (updated April 23)
Just as the Academy Award-nominated feature documentary ATTICA effectively used historical footage and interviews with key participants to illustrate our country’s history of systemic racism, so too does the excellent new documentary AMERICAN JUSTICE ON TRIAL.
The film had its world premiere Friday, April 22 as part of the 65th SFFILM Festival. It will have a special theatrical screening at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland on Wednesday, May 25th at 6pm. Followed by a panel discussion moderated by award-winning journalist ROSIE LEE ALLEN, with director/producer ANDREW ABRAHAMS, director HERB FERRETTE, producer/author LISE PEARLMAN, Huey’s brother MELVIN NEWTON and Oakland civil rights attorney JOHN BURRIS.
In 2015, Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf proclaimed November 10 as “David Harper Day.”
If you don’t know who Mr. Harper is, AMERICAN JUSTICE ON TRIAL will introduce you to the country’s first African-American jury foreman of a major murder trial in the United States. The sensational trial, held in Oakland, was that of Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton, accused of killing a white Oakland police officer. There were thousands of protesters outside the Alameda County courthouse in 1968 in support of Newton; National Guard troops were at the ready, and international media was there to cover whatever might happen.
The film offers the compelling argument that, at the end of the day, the trial successfully challenged the way jury pools are chosen, resulting in the inclusion of more women and people of color on juries across the nation.
The film, written and produced by award-winning author Lise Pearlman and produced by Oscar-shortlisted and Emmy-nominated producer/director Andrew Abrahams offers us a rich selection of interviewees, many of whom were involved in the Panthers movement and in the trial itself, including Bay Area reporter Belva Davis, famed defense attorney John Burris, Federal Judge Thelton Henderson and Panther communications secretary Kathleen Cleaver. Abrahams and co-director Herb Ferrette lay out the story cleanly and artfully, utilizing compelling footage of the event itself, animation to enhance, and music that compliments.
Civil rights attorney Charles Garry led the defense team, along with Fay Stender, at a time when a female co-counsel was rare. They effectively put American racism on trial, and argued that Newton, who was badly wounded in the encounter, acted in self-defense.
But it is the story of the jury selection and its actions that provide the heart of the story. It was groundbreaking to have a murder trial jury with a majority of women, and a Black foreman. The film argues that Newton’s defense team redefined a “jury of one’s peers.” “This sort of diversity was unheard of,” says David Harper.
In one of the film’s most surprising and satisfying moments, Harper explains why it was so important for him, a Black man, to be chosen as foremen. His strategy? “I played Dirty Hearts (a card game) with the strong women,” which apparently was a bonding experience that they rewarded.
Newton himself took the stand; the film utilizes voice actors to bring us the testimony that invokes the history of slavery and police brutality against Blacks throughout our country’s history.
The sensational trial took place just weeks after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, with the Vietnam War dividing the nation. “As the jury deliberated Newton’s fate, America was a tinderbox waiting to explode,” the film’s media tells us.
Under Harper’s leadership, Newton was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, although the conviction was later thrown out because of errors by the judge.
In the media release around “David Harper Day,” officials said that he was “a pioneer who risked his life to serve on the otherwise all-white jury, adding that the case lead to more inclusion of women and minorities on juries nationwide.
AMERICAN JUSTICE ON TRIAL gives us a snapshot of an important moment in our country’s history, with issues that still resonate today.
AMERICAN JUSTICE ON TRIAL website where you can sign up to be informed of future screenings and other news.
Read Producer/Creator Lisa Pearlman’s “Filmmaker’s Statement“
Read Lisa Pearlman’s book “American Justice on Trial.”
C.J. Hirschfield retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”