November 30, 2023

By Raymond Jones


Within the three-part episodic documentary, “72 Seconds in Rittenhouse Sq.,” director Tigre Hill brings to the display screen a searing Philadelphia story. He examines the racially divisive felony case of the deadly 2018 encounter between Michael White, a younger Black man, and Sean Schellinger, a well-connected white developer.  It’s possible you’ll assume you recognize the story — however do you?  

Half thriller, half detective story, Hill’s visceral exploration into the media saturated homicide within the Rittenhouse Sq. neighborhood reveals many unrealized victims with few celebratory winners. The “72 seconds” within the title refers back to the estimated time that elapsed between the encounter of Schellinger and White that without end modified their lives and the lives of those that cherished them. 

Within the first episode, viewers are transported again in time to a balmy July night time in 2018.  Hill introduces us to the hip summer time night time lifetime of Rittenhouse Sq., the place limousines double park in entrance of high-priced eateries and six-figure offers are made after hours over cocktails.  

As voyeurs watching the scene by restaurant digital camera footage on the posh Rouge restaurant, viewers of the episode see Schellinger, wanting youthful than his 37 years, and buddies having fun with an evening out.  Flickering black and white silent video of Schellinger– laughing, speaking, consuming whereas voices and interviews from households and buddies who knew him  narrate the night.  Schellinger’s buddies  describe him as somebody  “with a smile that would mild up a room” and with a persona to match. 

Out of the blue, the viewer is  transfixed, watching a black and white audio grainy video of a chaotic scene within the alley of seventeenth and Callowhill, with Sean’s buddies yelling and screaming as a shadowy determine in a white t-shirt rapidly dashes previous onlookers.  The determine is described as a Black male, six-feet tall with a white t-shirt. Barely recognizable, the individual disappears into the night time by Rittenhouse Sq. Park,  as Schellinger’s buddies scream in horror on the realization that he has been stabbed and is dying in entrance of their eyes.  

Cinematographer Lamont Fountain movies Michael White at scene of incident. Picture courtesy: Tigre Hill

After that tumultuous scene, Hill painstakingly introduces us to Schellinger’s household, his highschool buddies, and his work companions, who all share glowing tales about his pure management and pleasant persona.  Sean is described as a beloved, gregarious, youthful, upwardly cell younger man with every thing in life to dwell for earlier than he was killed — a killing presumed to be unprovoked and premeditated with malice.  

With the fixed media drumbeat on each TV station on the town of the “knife-wielding killer” as subtext,  the episode shifts chronicling the city-wide manhunt that was introduced after Schellinger was killed. Hill additionally skillfully highlights the information protection of the time and the disbelief that somebody may very well be murdered within the prosperous Rittenhouse Sq. neighborhood.  In any case, as one individual interviewed within the episode says, “this isn’t purported to occur in Rittenhouse Sq.. It isn’t North Philadelphia.”

The movie gives scenic views and commentary from long-standing residents of the Rittenhouse neighborhood and its tree-lined streets boasting a median particular person revenue of over $105,000. 

Shortly after the city-wide manhunt — unsolicited, and completely sudden — White, a 20-year-old African American man with a easy caramel teenage face, turns himself in.  It’s a beautiful flip within the case, on condition that the police had no suspects. 

Together with family and friends, the primary episode introduces us to a litany of audio system and visitor stars all through the three episodes, together with names acquainted to viewers that embrace protection lawyer Michael Coard and District Lawyer Larry Krasner.  Because the episode concludes, Hill presents the complete breadth of the story and provides voices to Philadelphia’s distinctive neighborhood views on the case, full with Philadelphia Eagles paraphernalia and neighborhood vernacular.  The episode ends with a quasi-confession from White with little or no recollection of the night and only a few particulars.

Director Tigre Hill interviews Michael White. Picture courtesy: Tigre Hill


Hill introduces White, the accused, and interviews together with his mom and the gents that helped him flip himself in. On this  episode, White is portrayed as a delicate youth with no historical past of felony exercise, however stricken by household secrets and techniques.  His mom describes him as a “good boy,” reward she insists she would lengthen to him even when he weren’t her son. A seasoned public lawyer acknowledges, on digital camera, White’s historical past appears to be in direct opposition to the crime he’s accused of — the director’s first introduction to the likelihood that “one thing simply doesn’t match.” 

 The director is cautious to take away the scab from the felony justice system all through this episode, permitting the viewer firsthand witness to detective interrogation rooms, the litany of felony justice departments and divisions and the dizzying internet of legalese and lawyer jargon. Michael at first has no concept what occurred that night time.  As if he was an actor in a dream, he vacillates, denies, agrees, and cries, then completely dismisses any rationale for the predicament he finds himself in.  And he’s in fairly a predicament — dealing with a life sentence if convicted of first-degree homicide costs. 

As a viewer, you’re taken alongside because the director unfolds extra data, you start to completely expertise the trauma with Michael having agonized and vacillated emotionally now for 2 episodes. “Did Michael kill Sean in chilly blood or, as Michael started to recollect, was it an unintentional demise in self-defense?” the viewer finds themselves questioning.  The movie poses contradictory factors of view by passionate private testimonies. 

Tigre Hill interviews Linda Schellenger. Picture courtesy: Tigre Hill


Within the remaining episode, the entire story involves mild with the director of the Defenders Affiliation of Philadelphia at the moment, Keir Bradford-Gray, taking the lead within the homicide case — her first time attempting a such a case. 

“As a Black mom, I believed it was necessary to emphasize the nuanced emotions of safety and Michael’s innocence till confirmed responsible, one thing I believed my crew could not perceive,” she mentioned within the movie. “I noticed him like a son.”

The Defender Affiliation of Philadelphia’s analysis crew additionally discovered damaging proof and a attainable sample of aggressive habits from Schellinger.  Ten years prior, he was arrested in Florida and brought out of a membership. His habits in that altercation was described as resembling that of “a rabid racoon in a barn.”

 Whereas a scholar at Penn State, Schellinger’s aggressive habits was additional demonstrated when he broke into a house whereas intoxicated and resisted arrest.  In that case, based on police, he “bull rushed” the police officer as they tried to apprehend him. 

 That related characterization, of being “bull rushed,” was expressed by White concerning the night time of the argument that led to the altercation ensuing within the killing.  Though White had a knife for cover, his description of backing away earlier than he was rushed by Schellinger made the self-defense argument believable.    

The reenactment of White’s testimony on the stand is riveting.  Additionally, as a viewer, you get to see the complete breakdown and outline of the grainy video combat and the reason of the stabbing.  It’s a clear, must-see second that helps viewers to higher perceive the journey by every episode. For added drama, DA Krasner is featured as a lighting-rod on this case — a handy “whipping boy” for Schellinger’s household as it seems that the case could rule within the favor of White. 

As Episode Three ends, Hill helps the viewers higher perceive the ache of all of the relations concerned. As a viewer, you’re feeling utterly exhausted after watching the courtroom drama.

Like all good filmmaker, Hill leaves us with unresolved ambivalence: the Schellengers initially received the correct of the best conviction, homicide within the first diploma, but misplaced the case by a myriad of authorized maneuvers, leaving them bitter in regards to the justice system. It’s an ironic coincidence for them — as white  People — however all too acquainted for African People concerned in the identical system. 

White received the case, gaining his freedom.  He helped save his personal life, however within the course of, misplaced his innocence. The documentary clearly reveals White combating the privilege of having the ability to decide up the place his life left off —  a privilege taken as a right by many white people who find themselves typically  victorious in felony justice circumstances.  

“My intent was to inform the story as greatest I might, with the info as I noticed them, and let the viewers resolve,” Hill mentioned.

In “72 seconds in Rittenhouse Sq.,” the intersection of race, privilege and the justice system will stay with the viewer lots longer than the title suggests. The docuseries will be seen on Paramount Plus at:

A fast Q&A with Tigre Hill, the director of the brand new docuseries ‘72 Seconds in Rittenhouse Sq.’

SUN: What was your inspiration for the documentary?  

Hill: I bear in mind listening to about [a] homicide that occurred in Rittenhouse.  This occurred throughout the Trump presidency in a city the place progressive DAs have been being elected. I noticed this case as a microcosm of what the racial divide throughout the nation [looks] like and I needed to seize that—perhaps to see how a lot has modified in society.

SUN: What have been your observations in taking pictures the movie? 

Hill: We’re a divided metropolis.  We’re a metropolis of divided neighborhoods.  It’s higher than it was previously, however this case, in so some ways, this case is our ‘OJ’ second in Philadelphia. 

SUN: What’s your remaining takeaway from spending time with the households, buddies, attorneys of Michael White and Sean Schellinger?

Hill: Notion is actuality.