In February 2008, 14-year-old Larry King walked up to fellow classmate Brandon McInerney and, as a dare, asked him to be his valentine.
A few days later, on Valentine's Day, McInerney shot King twice in the back of the head at school. McInerney is now serving a 21-year sentence.
First-time director Marta Cunningham spent four years making the new HBO documentary, Valentine Road, which explores the life and death of Larry King. She tells NPR's Celeste Headlee that her years of research and interviews transformed the way she viewed the crime, the victim and — most surprisingly — the shooter.
"I couldn't help but feel a tremendous amount of empathy for this child," Cunningham says, "and I always felt a tremendous amount of empathy for Larry because of how misunderstood he was."
On learning about Larry
From what I found out about Larry, it was really a gender expression and gender identity, kind of, exploration that he was going through. Not so much his sexuality, which I didn't know until really much later when I started working with the gay and lesbian center in Los Angeles. ... Two weeks before his death, he was wearing the [school] uniform still, but wearing heels and wearing makeup, doing his hair in a feminine manner with a bow sometimes, earrings, you know, dangly chandelier earrings, which were actually pretty cute. So I felt that that [his being killed for dressing like a girl] was even more shocking to me. That this was something that really was dealing with femininity, and what was so wrong about being feminine?
On the shooter, Brandon McInerney
Some people still do feel that he's a threat to society, and others understand that he was a boy and therefore should be treated as such. I think it lies somewhere in the middle. I really don't know. I'm not a psychologist, but I can tell you that I talked to [prosecuting attorney] Maeve [Fox] yesterday and one of the things that she repeated to me was, "If he's doing this at 14, then who is he going to be at 24, 34 and 44?"
Brandon is a self-avowed white supremacist, from what his mother says. But I have to say that, being an African-American woman, even with that, I look at the parenting; I look at his environment; I look at the people that he felt were reaching out and helping him. However twisted it may look like to us, that was his family. And so, you know, we have to look at the environments that these people are coming from, who commit these types of crimes. And we have to understand them. Otherwise we are not going to stop the cycle of violence. It won't end.
On the survivors at school
At the time, when I met these kids, they were 13 years old, and some of them had witnessed this horrible crime in the classroom and really had no one to talk to. It was unbelievable. They had one day of therapy. It was kind of like this, "So, how're you doing?" And most teenagers kind of grunt, and they grunted, and they were going, "Next!"
The kids later on ... they were the ones who were asking for forgiveness throughout the film. They were the ones who had the regret, and some of the adults really didn't feel that they needed to be forgiven for the way they treated [Larry]. ... You know some of these kids are really invisible, and we have to make sure that that doesn't happen. I mean, that's our responsibility — I think — as adults.
On what she hopes for the film
The statistics show that more and more kids are coming out earlier, so my goal with this film is to use it as an educational tool, for administration, for teachers. So that they are capable, and you know, managing these types of differences. I mean, if kids are coming out younger, and they're expressing themselves younger, and there are [transgender] prom queens in Huntington Beach, we need to make sure we are having faculty that understand them.
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. We cover a number of issues related to sexuality on this program, and the past year has shown progress for the LGBT movement. This month, for example, a transgender teenager was named homecoming queen in Huntington Beach, California. But just five years ago, a couple of hours up the road, a teen died for openly exploring his sexual identity. Here's how Ellen DeGeneres addressed his death on her show.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ELLEN DEGENERES SHOW")
ELLEN DEGENERES: On February 12th, an openly gay 15-year-old boy named Larry, who was an eighth grader in Oxnard, California, was murdered by a fellow eighth grader named Brandon. Larry was killed because he was gay. Days before he was murdered, Larry asked his killer to be his Valentine. I don't want to be political, but this is personal to me. A boy has been killed and a number of lives have been ruined, and somewhere along the line the killer, Brandon, got the message that it's so threatening and so awful and so horrific that Larry would want to be his Valentine, that killing Larry seemed to be the right thing to do.
HEADLEE: A new film, the HBO documentary "Valentine Road" now delves into the life and death of Larry King. His killer, Brandon McInerney, is currently serving a 21-year sentence. The film's director, Marta Cunningham, joins me now to tell us more about it. Welcome to the program, Marta.
MARTA CUNNINGHAM: Thank you so much for having me, Celeste.
HEADLEE: This was a four-year project for you, right?
CUNNINGHAM: Yes, 2008 I started filming, in the fall of 2008 - and it happened February 12, 2008.
HEADLEE: That's a long time to be focused on a very tragic story. What kept you in this film - what kept you coming back to this story?
CUNNINGHAM: I think the children in the film. The young adults, now, I mean, some of them are off in college, but at the time when I meet these kids, they were 13 years old. And some of them had witnessed this horrible crime in the classroom and really had no one to talk to. I mean, it was unbelievable. They had one day of therapy, and it was in a library and it was kind of like this - so how are you doing?
And most teenagers kind of grunt and they grunted and they were going - next. And so I was the first adult that they had met that really cared about Larry, Brandon, the situation they were in. Everyone was trying to sweep it under the rug that they knew. So they were really unloading. There was a lot of unloading and grief and kind of coming to terms with what had happened.
HEADLEE: Well, let's talk about exactly what happened. These two kids. Larry was the young man who was killed, Brandon was the young man who killed him. What led up to the murder on that day?
CUNNINGHAM: Well, from what we know, and what we were told by Larry's friends, is that he walked up to Brandon on the basketball court and asked him to be his Valentine on a dare, and two days later, he was dead. You know, he was shot twice in the back of the head by Brandon on the 12th of February and then died on Valentine's Day.
HEADLEE: Brandon had gotten the gun from where?
CUNNINGHAM: His grandfather's house. He was staying at his grandfather's house and he got it out of the closet, which was unlocked at the time.
HEADLEE: Here's a clip of the prosecuting attorney, Maeve Fox, talking about this murder in your documentary.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "VALENTINE ROAD")
MAEVE FOX: Because of the vicious nature of the crime, this is not a crime that the juvenile system is capable of handling. What do you do with someone like this, who is so dangerous that they plot out the execution of a classmate in front of a whole classroom full of people?
HEADLEE: And yet, that's not necessarily the picture of Brandon McInerney that comes - that I came away with at least from your documentary film - this idea of this extraordinarily dangerous threat to society. What did you feel like you learned about Brandon?
CUNNINGHAM: Well, I think it's really interesting. It depends on who watches it because some people still do feel that he is a threat to society, and others understand that he was a boy, and therefore, should be treated as such. I think that it lies somewhere in the middle. I really don't know. I'm not a psychologist, but I can tell you that I talked to Maeve yesterday, and one of the things that she repeated to me was if he's doing this at 14, then who's he going to be at 24 or 34 and 44?
And I just think it was a big enough subject to tackle. And we may be asking more questions than answering them in the film, but I really wanted to bring it to an audience to start looking at some of these big issues that we're just not talking about, which is trying children as adults. Is that right? Is it fair? Is that something we want to continue doing? It's not just in California. New York does this, New Jersey, and more are starting to. So is this something that we're comfortable with - the trend of trying children as adults? I want that conversation to be had.
HEADLEE: I should be clear that you're film, in no way shape or form, tries to make excuses for the murder - the really cold-blooded murder of another teenager, but you do start to see a few similarities between these two boys, both Larry and Brandon. Can you tell me about maybe some of the ways in which their life experiences intersected?
CUNNINGHAM: I think that's really what kept me going. You asked me before, and I think it was the similarities between these boys that almost attracted them to each other. They both had extremely difficult childhoods. And when I looked at that and spoke to the people that knew Larry and Brandon, like Brandon's family, I couldn't help but feel a tremendous amount of empathy for this child. And I always felt a tremendous amount of empathy for Larry because of how misunderstood he was.
And even the kids later on, how much regret they had for any type of teasing that they did. And really, they were the ones who were asking for forgiveness throughout the film. They were the ones who had the regret, and some of the adults really didn't feel that they needed to be forgiven for the way they treated him. So I thought that was also very interesting. But the similarities really came back to difficult childhoods, being misunderstood and not being seen. You know, some of these kids are really invisible, and we have to make sure that that doesn't happen. I mean, that's our responsibility, I think, as adults.
HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking to director Marta Cunningham about her HBO documentary "Valentine Road." Since you talked about the adults, one of the most compelling moments there was when we were seeing some of the jurors there - and this was a shocking moment. You sit down with some of the ladies who were on the jury of this case, and they're drinking wine and they're eating some cheese, and it's just really a telling moment. Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "VALENTINE ROAD")
UNIDENTIFIED JUROR: I do not think it was first-degree murder. However, it was premeditated. He had a plan to resolve this terrible problem because nobody was taking care of this problem.
CUNNINGHAM: By murder or just to maim him?
JUROR: We don't know. And then he's having second thoughts about doing it. But then, the green light, when he says, hey, Larry, I hear you're changing your name to Latisha. To him, that's a green light - pulls out the gun and shoots him.
JUROR: He was solving a problem.
HEADLEE: Just a stunning view of the situation. The problem of this young boy, Larry, who was trying to deal with his sexuality. Tell me a little bit more about the adults and their reaction because, as I understand it from your film, Larry's teacher was one of the few people that tried to address this, and she was eventually fired.
CUNNINGHAM: That's true. And I just want to clarify that from what I found out about Larry, it was really a gender expression and gender identity kind of exploration that he was going through. Not so much his sexuality, which I didn't know until really much later when I started working with the center - the Gay and Lesbian Center in Los Angeles.
HEADLEE: He began wearing high-heeled boots and makeup to school...
HEADLEE: ...Not long before this whole incident.
CUNNINGHAM: Exactly. The two weeks before his death, he was wearing the uniform still but wearing heels and wearing makeup, doing his hair in a feminine manner with a bow, sometimes earrings - you know, dangly, chandelier earrings, which were actually pretty cute. So I felt that that was even more shocking to me, that this was something that really was dealing with femininity and what was so wrong with being feminine.
But getting back to your question about adults - Dawn Boldrin was the teacher that was let go. And what she was told was there was no more room for her because she wanted to take some time off. Obviously, after witnessing something like that and being in a classroom where one of your students kills another student, she wanted to take time off. And by the time she was ready to come back, they said there was no room for her. So it is - it's shocking that the one person who kind of said, you know what, I get you and I understand you, and I think it's perfectly fine what you're doing. And here's a prom dress, not to wear at school, but to wear at home. And I think that was amazing that she was able to see Larry and didn't treat him any differently.
HEADLEE: And she's now working at Starbucks.
CUNNINGHAM: She was working at Starbucks, and now she's gotten another job. She's a librarian now, so she's doing better.
HEADLEE: But it did make me question what has happened to the city. How has Oxnard recovered from this? Or has the city, the community recovered?
CUNNINGHAM: Can you ever really recover from something like this? I think that is a great question. I mean, when it comes to the school itself - Aaliyah (ph), one of the students, wanted to plant a tree in Larry's memory. And they planted the tree that she got from a nursery, which was donated by a nursery, and then raised money for that to be planted. But there is no plaque. There's no memory of Larry. It's not discussed at school to this day still.
HEADLEE: So you went into making this film and you probably already had some strong opinions about it, right? That's fair to say?
CUNNINGHAM: I think it's fair to say that my empathy really was just with Larry when I started this endeavor.
HEADLEE: And having finished the film?
CUNNINGHAM: I feel for both of them deeply. And now that I know their families - I mean, you know, Brandon is a self-avowed white supremacist from what his mother says. But I have to say that being an African-American woman, even with that, I look at the parenting. I look at his environment. I look at the people that he felt were reaching out and helping him. However twisted it may look to us, that was his family. And so, you know, we have to look at the environments that these people are coming from who commit these types of crimes. And we have to understand them, otherwise we're not going to stop the cycle of violence. We just - it won't end.
HEADLEE: Do you think that we are on the path at least to begin dealing with these things better. There's been so much attention paid to bullying cases around the country, especially bullying of gay and bisexual and transgender kids. Are we improving?
CUNNINGHAM: Well, I feel like - Mariska Hargitay has an incredible foundation called the Joyful Heart Foundation, and it talks about No More, which is their new campaign of stopping sexual abuse and domestic violence. And when you look at where these children are growing up in - when you look at Brandon's identity and you look at what he was surrounded by, it was domestic violence. And, you know, who knows what Larry went through before he was adopted at 2-years-old. Who knows what insane...
HEADLEE: By abusive parents, I should say.
CUNNINGHAM: Well, you know, even before he was adopted at 2-years-old - so really, we're not sure. We don't know. But we do know that it was bad enough that he was living in a homeless shelter for abused and neglected children when he was killed. So when you look at that and you see the amount of children who are suffering every day and are invisible and we really aren't taking care of them in a proper way, it's hard for me to say. Is it getting better? I hope so.
The statistics show that more and more kids are coming out earlier. So my goal with this film is to use it as an educational tool for administration, for teachers, so that they are capable and, you know, managing these types of differences. I mean, if kids are coming out younger and they're expressing themselves younger and they're prom queens in Huntington Beach, you know, we need to make sure we are having faculty that understand them.
HEADLEE: Well, it's a really stunning and sobering film. Marta Cunningham is the director of "Valentine Road." The documentary debuts next week on Monday, October 7 on HBO. Marta was kind enough to join us from NPR West in California. Marta, thank you so much.
CUNNINGHAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.