I think, as a general principal, that it's hard for a documentary focused on discussing living political problems to be aesthetically interesting at a very high level, which is one of the reasons I don't tend to care for agitprop documentaries, and why I institute my "is this more interesting than a magazine story on the same topic?" test. But sometimes you can have your cake and eat it, and to prove the point, here comes 3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets. It is, on the one hand, a sickeningly potent case study of one particular murder of a young African-American male by a freaked-out white dude with a gun, and the broken judicial system that permits crimes like that to go unpunished. But it's also a tense, engaging piece of narrative that performs the ultimate trick of a great documentary, by teasing its arguments out through the viewer's own thought processes rather than hauling out talking heads and authority figures to tell us what to think.

The film's subject is the 2012 shooting of Jordan Davis, 17 years old when he was killed by 45-year-old Michael Dunn in Jacksonville, Florida, the end point of an altercation that started over loud music Davis and his friends were playing as they were filling up their car at the same gas station as Dunn. Nobody involved disputed that Dunn fired the bullets; the case hinged on whether or not Dunn's actions were justified under the state's stand-your-ground law (more notoriously invoked in another 2012 killing, the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin).

Director Marc Silver takes it as a given that Davis represented no actual threat to Dunn, and invites us to be suitably outraged, but that's not really what 3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets is about. It is a kind of weird courtroom drama, one that unfurls very slowly and without explaining what's going on - we have to piece together what the crime was to begin with, let alone who the principles were and what specific events took place. It's asking the audience to be a combination of detective and jurist, encountering information and sifting through it and figuring out what it means (Silver took notes from The Thin Blue Line, clearly), never taking as its subject the question of whether Dunn is morally culpable for Davis's death, which it assumes, but whether the wriggliness of the stand-your-ground laws means that Dunn is legally culpable.

Different viewers will undoubtedly piece together those data points in different ways, but the effect is near enough to the same thing: 3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets is not confronting the problem of middle-aged white men being made nervous and uncomfortable by the mere existence of black teenagers, but the problem of how that discomfort has been codified into law. And it gets there not by haranguing us, nor by lecturing, but by presenting reality in the form of a narrative thriller that lets the arbitrary injustice of these most toxic of laws cast real doubt onto the question of whether Dunn can be found guilty of a crime.

It's one of the best films about the current wave of racially-motivated crimes I've seen, only slightly undercut by its dreadfully leading, saccharine score, and its mission drift as it goes on; the final scenes unpersuasively suggest that (SPOILER ALERT FOR REALITY) we should feel uplift from the fact that Dunn was imprisoned for his crimes, even though the problem it so piercingly identified wasn't "this one white guy flipped out and killed a kid" but "this is merely a symptom of a society-wide problem with laws effectively making it okay to murder African-American men because you never know", and that is a thread that Silver almost forgets about by the end. But whatever. The missteps are little, and the brilliance with which the film combines righteous outrage and smart film construction are enough to make this a thoroughly essential piece of the documentarian's art.