With ‘72 Seconds in Rittenhouse Square,’ filmmaker Tigre Hill wants to present two sides of a tragic story
The new true-crime documentary series on Paramount+ revisits the fateful altercation between Michael White and Sean Schellenger in Rittenhouse Square, back in 2018.
“The fatal encounter between a wealthy developer and a young food delivery man stoked the city’s racial tensions. But the real story isn’t all black and white,” an Inquirer report from Oct. 2018 reads.
On July 12, 2018, real estate developer Sean Schellenger got into an altercation with Michael White that eventually resulted in Schellenger’s death from stabbing. White surrendered the next day and, on Oct. 17, 2019, was found not guilty of voluntary manslaughter but was sentenced to two years of probation for evidence tampering.
Five years after that night, the new true-crime documentary series 72 Seconds in Rittenhouse Square debuted Tuesday on Paramount+. The Inquirer spoke to filmmaker Tigre Hill on the eve of the series’ release.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What made you want to revisit the something that took place in 2018?
I kept focusing on what happened. [Michael White] turned himself in the next day. And the look on his eyes was saying a lot. I wanted to see how it all plays out.
First I asked [White’s lawyer] Keir Bradford-Grey if we could meet and talk. Somebody then got me in touch with Linda Schellenger. So we had a two-meeting setup. [Linda and I] sat down for two hours, and she gave me this riveting story about what happened. It was a lot of things I didn’t know. And at the end of the meeting, I felt one way.
Then the next day I met with Keir Bradford-Grey at the same place, for two hours. Had a riveting conversation. I learned a lot I didn’t know and then at the end of that, I said ‘Wow!’, she had me thinking in another way. So that was the beginning of me knowing that I wanted to really make this film and that’s the way I wanted to portray [things] in the film. I wanted to capture those two meanings, the two separate and distinct recollections and perceptions. And that’s what I did.
Do you think you’ve been successful in not letting your own biases bleed into the narrative?
Like I said, I wanted to recreate those two meetings, where you have one particular side here, and the other particular side there. The audience is the jury. The Schellengers are wonderful people and they had a tragic loss. Michael White is a very nice young man. Knowing his background, what he went through ... he was trying to get it together, then this happens. You have empathy for everyone in the story, so it’s not so easy to take a side. Michael is going through a lot, as are Sean’s parents. I just wanted to show that.
So what does the incident mean to you, today in 2023?
It’s a snapshot of where we are in the country today. People can question progressive prosecution — it has its pluses and its minuses. People can question this case. Ask ‘Did it actually happen, as people said it did?’ It’s a snapshot of where we are today, the polarization.
Things are polarized in the country and as journalists, as filmmakers, we always run the danger of saying something that is weaponized to further polarize things. Are you scared of that happening?
I have experienced that with another film I made. And I don’t think “scared” is the word. Of course, I’m concerned about that happening. But we have to face what it is that we confront. And without doing that, we just continue to move away from the reality.
More specifically, do you think this film will be seen as anti-Larry Krasner propaganda?
People are going to use it the way they want to. I tried to talk to Larry quite a few times. I wanted his side of the story. He was doing his job.
He couldn’t find the time?
He refused to talk. [A spokesperson from Krasner’s office confirmed that he declined to participate.] I could find all the time. The access to materials makes the film what it is. You see the video of the incident, Michael’s meeting with district attorney, things that give you a well-rounded bird’s eye view of everything that happened and some of the inside things that happened. A lot of this stuff I had to get through sources. I wouldn’t be here talking to you about the film if I went through his office. I’d still be waiting.
There is a lot more of Linda Schellenger in the series than Michael White’s mother, Juanita. Was that intentional?
That’s an interesting observation. Michael’s mother is a sweetheart but was not [as involved]. The Schellengers were very involved in press, getting the story out. Michael’s mother was very concerned about Michael; she was there but was more focused on him and his well-being. So she wasn’t out in front of the cameras, like the Schellengers were. And they wanted to make sure their side of the story was told.
What are you working on next?
Actually, I’m working on one more Philly story. A secret service story. It’s actually a [narrative] movie; we’ve been shooting forever. It’s about the early career of Cecil B. Moore. Once I read all his stuff, I said, this is a Hollywood story. It just happens to take place in Philadelphia.