‘They Won’t Call It Murder’ presents a personal view of Columbus police killings

The new documentary from filmmakers Melissa Gira Grant and Ingrid Raphaël screens on Friday at the Wexner Center as part of the ‘Unorthodocs’ film festival

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
A still from "They Won't Call It Murder"

There’s a moment early in “They Won’t Call It Murder,” a new documentary from filmmakers Melissa Gira Grant and Ingrid Raphaël, where Adrienne Hood tours the Linden street where her son, Henry Green, was shot and killed by plainclothes Columbus police officers in June 2016. “This is my sister’s home,” Hood says, pointing to the house Green was walking to when he was shot. “He was almost home; two doors from safety.”

This feeling of sadness — shaped by the tragedy of events, the lingering questions about what actually happened in the moments before police opened fire, and the apparent inability of the justice system to hold police officers accountable in the aftermath — permeates the first half of the 20-minute film, which centers on a quartet of local police killings: Green, Donna Dalton, Ty’re King and Julius Tate, Jr.

For journalist Gira Grant, the seeds for the film were planted in August 2018, when she started reporting on Dalton, who was killed by CPD officer Andrew Mitchell during a prostitution arrest. 

“Right away, even though I had not done any reporting on the Columbus police department, it was clear this was an under-covered police department when we talk about police killings nationally,” said Gira Grant, who will join co-director Raphaël, an educator and co-founder of No Evil Eye, for the Midwest premiere of “They Won’t Call It Murder.” The documentary screens at the Wexner Center at 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 22, as part of the “Unorthodocs” film festival. (Visit the official site here for a full list of films and showtimes.)

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Mitchell would eventually be charged with the murder, making him a rarity not just in the film, but in Columbus history. (The film states that he is the first officer charged with murder here in 20 years). In addressing the Dalton case, the filmmakers don’t duck the issue of race, either, including a quote from Hood about how she viewed the dynamic at play in the city's decision to bring charges against a Black officer (Mitchell) who killed a white woman (Dalton). “That was easy,” Hood says, stressing that she is in no way trying to diminish the Dalton family’s pain. Later in the film, Dalton’s sister, Bobbi McCalla, expresses similar sentiments as she joins a Black lives matter protest, relaying in an interview her desire “to use my voice to help raise theirs.”

Raphaël and Gira Grant both attended protests in the wake of the December 2018 killing of Tate, but didn’t formally meet until they were presented the opportunity to work together on this film, Raphaël said. The pairing brings together Gira Grant’s journalism background and the relationships she developed with families in her reporting with Raphaël’s connections to the city’s organizing community. “So we were able to approach a story about police killings in the city without centering the police narrative,” Raphaël said.

Indeed, a majority of the screen time is devoted to moms Adrienne Hood (Henry Green), Nia Malika King (Ty’re King) and Jamita Malone (Julius Tate, Jr.), along with McCalla, the sister of Donna Dalton. When Columbus officials finally are shown in one archival reel, including former Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney Ron O’Brien and former Columbus Police Chief Kim Jacobs, their faces are partially obscured, purposely cut off just above the mouth in the footage. “And the reason we did that wasn’t to protect them,” Raphaël said. “It was to show that they’re the faceless antagonists in the movie, in that anyone could take on that role.”

A still from "They Won't Call It Murder"

As the film moves into its final act, the directors capture footage of the resurgent Black lives matter protests that erupted in the city beginning in late May 2020 following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Prior to the protests, the two thought they were done gathering footage, but the spontaneous moments of celebration and righteous anger, of dancing and tears, reflected the realities they had experienced in filming the family members over the last couple of years.

“Keeping those two things in there, yeah, there's this contradiction of sorts, where we’re celebrating lives that have been lost but that’s also bringing out anger and sadness,” Raphaël said. “There’s a tension of what we can dream for the future, but also with the reality of what our system does not allow us to dream.”

This reality is further hammered home by the words that appear on the screen when the documentary ends: “As this film was in production nine people were killed by police in Columbus." The statement is then followed by a roll call of names that have become part of a growing local conversation centered on police reform and accountability, including Casey Goodson, Jr., Ma’Khia Bryant and Andre Hill, among others. 

“The 15-year old who was shot and killed by Columbus police (Abdirahman Salad), that was within days of us leaving town,” Gira Grant said of the January 2020 shooting. “And that’s when it started to cross our radar that there are going to be so many more families that we can’t include. … I think the reason we chose these families, and were able to focus on these families, is they were families, for the most part, who had already been public, and were already willing. We were just asking them to do it in a different way, in a way that was more vulnerable than a quick TV news story, so it was important for us to focus on them and go deep.”

“This whole thing came from a place of us wanting to bring the families back into the middle of their stories,” said Raphaël of the various competing narratives that emerged in the wake of the killings, driven by police, politicians and media. “And to finally give them agency.”