Oxnard, Calif., is a town that “hardly anyone knows (about) unless they’ve heard about the story,” says one resident in the documentary “Valentine Road.”
On Feb. 12, 2008, openly transgender eighth-grade student Larry King was shot and killed by classmate Brandon McInerney in a classroom at Oxnard’s E.O. Green Junior High School. “Valentine Road” explores the events of the day, as well as those leading up to the killing and its aftermath.
Surrounding this story of the premeditated killing of a 15-year-old are revelations of homophobia, white supremacy, drug addiction and a system that failed two boys. Earlier this month, I spoke with “Valentine Road” director Marta Cunningham and producer Sasha Alpert.
Gregg Shapiro: When did you first hear about the killing of Larry King?
Marta Cunningham: I read (about it in) an article, about five months after. I was horrified that this event happened, that I had not heard about it and that it wasn’t still being talked about on the news. I immediately started doing as much research as I could and found that a lot of the media coverage was victim-blaming, inaccurate. I was really upset by that.
Is that what drew you to the story?
MC: Really what I wanted to do was show the complexities and not just focus on the incident. That was just too black-and-white of a story for me. What really interested me the most (were) the complexities about both of the boys. What was similar, not just what was different.
“Valentine Road” shines a light on many issues. A very telling moment in the film occurs when a couple of students being interviewed seem unsurprised that a shooting occurred, much less that it involved Larry.
Sasha Alpert: They live without a lot of adult supervision. There was no one intervening in this tense situation at the school. Neither of these kids had stable home situations, so they both lacked parents to guide them through a very difficult adolescence. Oxnard is a divided, mostly agricultural migrant labor community, and there is violence there. There is certainly gang activity and white supremacist activity there.
MC: But I think it’s fair to say that kids grow up in a different world than we did. School shootings are reported all the time. The problem is that we’ve accepted it. I don’t think it matters what neighborhood you’re in. They were so quick to be comfortable with the shooting, because this is just part of our culture now. I think it’s horrific.
“Valentine Road” is full of surprises, including the revelation that Brandon was a “budding white supremacist” and that some jurors saw the victim as responsible for his own murder. Some of the jurors wore “Free Brandon” bracelets when they were being interviewed on ABC at the time of the retrial. Were you surprised?
MC: I think by that time nothing really surprised me. I was pretty jaded by that point in the journey. No, I wasn’t shocked, because I had witnessed, by this time, so much homophobia. What was shocking to me was that they got to wear them (the bracelets) in the courtroom.
“Valentine Road” shows how powerful the effects of the murder were – from those touched by it on a local level to a national level, including Ellen DeGeneres. Is that a comment on changing attitudes toward the LGBT community?
SA: Attitudes have been changing over the course of the time we were making the film. Lots and lots of changes are happening, and it’s a really exciting time. I think kids that are adolescents now are going to live in a very different world than we live in, in that area. We just watched gay marriage being legalized in California.
Marta, you make use of animation when it comes to the depiction of Larry’s transgender alter-ego.
MC: I wanted to create a lightness of touch. That’s what Larry seemed to have. I wanted to keep that childhood notion alive, that fantasy aspect alive. I talked to a lot of trans men and women who talked about depictions that they had when they were younger. Sometimes they had to create alter egos to survive the amount of bullying and harassment that they went through. Last night, at the New York screening, there was a young man who came up to me and started crying. He said he was so happy that I had done the animation, because he was also like that as a child. He had so many different alter-egos.
“Valentine Road” has a Valentine’s theme – beginning with Larry and Brandon’s Valentine’s Day interaction. The entrance to the cemetery where Larry is buried is on Valentine Road, and Larry’s heart was donated to a little girl on V-Day. Has this had any effect on how you feel about the occasion?
MC: I never thought about it. I really try to keep my private life separate from anything that I do work-wise. I’m very good at compartmentalizing. I always think about Larry on Feb. 12, the day he was shot.
As part of the Milwaukee Film Festival, “Valentine Road” plays at 2 p.m. on Sept. 27 at the Fox Bay Cinema; 2 p.m. on Sept. 29 at the Oriental Theatre and at 2:30 p.m. on Oct. 1 at Fox Bay Cinema. Wisconsin Gazette is a community partner in the presentation.