Director: Ken Sagoes
Writer: Ken Sagoes
Cast: Kaleb Alexander Roberts, Hiram A. Murray, Bob Rumnock
Running time: 30mins
The McHenry Trial is a well-meaning social commentary drama that asks us to re-evaluate our prejudices and preconceptions. The subtitle – Don’t Judge a Kid by Their Hoodie – is essentially shorthand for “don’t judge someone because he’s young and black.” Or, more specifically, young, black and asking to represent his dad in court against a murder charge. Because this particular “kid” has got his degree and passed the bar exam at the age of 14.
So, this must be based on a true story, right? Otherwise, it just wouldn’t be believable. Well, oddly enough, it could actually happen – the US’s colourfully flexible approach to professional qualifications saw a nine-year-old passing the bar in Minnesota a few years ago and setting up her own legal practice. In this case, however, it’s not based on a true story, and it lacks the detail necessary to make it remotely believable.
That is a pity. The film has some very good and important points to make, about the nature of privilege and the establishment looking after its own. But the mechanics aren’t sufficiently robust to support the weight of the intent. The actors all seem to be having a decent go, but writer-director Ken Sagoes has neither given them great lines nor extracted the best possible reading.
Sagoes is a jobbing actor, whom film trivia completists may recognise from the cast list of the third and fourth instalments of A Nightmare on Elm Street. He’s written The McHenry Trial in the style of an issue-of-the-week TV movie. To be precise, the first act of a two act TV movie. With a running time of half an hour, we stop before the inevitable courtroom scene. In the tradition of the genre, we have characters so broadly drawn they might as well have “goodie” and “baddie” written on their foreheads, a laughably unconvincing fight scene, and no real attempt to explain how our young hero managed to gain his precocious education.
DeShawn McHenry, the teenage legal prodigy, decides he has to step in because the legal firm representing his dad is uninterested in proving his innocence. Instead, they reckon it’s better to go for a plea bargain and reduce the potential sentence from 50 years to 20. To them, that feels like a win. After all, it’s not they who’ll have to endure 20 years locked up. And Eric, AKA sleazy lawyer guy junior (son of sleazy lawyer guy senior, the company boss) is building up a reputation as “the duke of plea bargains.” His career will benefit from a bit of playful courtroom sparring with his old college chum Brad, “the dark knight of the prosecutors.”
But DeShawn has had a meeting with his dad, Shawn, in the cells and heard his side of the story. Shawn has described how he went with his fellow street sleeper Harvey to do some work for a scumbag employer and it ended with Harv stabbed and Shawn arrested as the suspect. For the purposes of the storytelling, Eric, Brad and the scumbag are all basically the same person, a privileged and entitled arsehole against whom DeShawn personifies the noble struggle. It’s essentially a morality play with the subtlety of a Sesame Street counting song.
There are some bright spots. Kaleb Alexander Roberts has a good presence as DeShawn, with a strong line in stoic silence in the face of sneering contempt. If he hadn’t conveyed his role as well as he does, the entire project would have collapsed. It’s fair to say that Bob Rumnock brings at least some layers to the crusty fossil Judge Carnige. And within the writing there’s a nicely used motif about knotting a necktie that runs through the story.
A bigger budget feature length version of this story could possibly work. And Roberts could, I’m sure, flesh out his role and carry the piece. But it would need significant script doctoring to add nuance to the supporting characters and create a more fully realised back story.