Tigre Hill’s New Documentary Delves Into Sean Schellenger Killing
The West Philly filmmaker interviewed the family of the developer as well as Michael White, the man who stabbed him to death in Rittenhouse Square in 2018. Watch the just-released trailer below.
There were 351 homicides in Philadelphia in 2018. But none of them was talked about nearly as much as the stabbing death of Philadelphia real estate developer Sean Schellenger, who was killed by Michael White in Rittenhouse Square during an altercation on July 12th of that year. Now, Schellenger’s death is the subject of 72 Seconds in Rittenhouse Square, an upcoming documentary by noted West Philadelphia filmmaker Tigre Hill.
“This was a very, very highly charged case involving race, class, and criminal justice reform, all mired in the politics of today,” Hill told Philly Mag on Tuesday from his Wynnefield home. “It’s a microcosm of what has been going on with politics in the nation. You have two sides that very strongly advocated their position.”
On one hand, says Hill, you have the friends and family of Schellenger, a well-off, well-connected white real estate developer who was profiled by Philly Mag in 2017. They say his death was murder, and that Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner let White off easy. Krasner downgraded the main charge against White from first-degree murder to third-degree murder, and then to voluntary manslaughter.
On the other hand, you have the supporters of White, a young Black man who was doing bicycle deliveries for Uber Eats at the time of the encounter. They claim Schellenger, who had been drinking at Rouge just before the altercation, was the aggressor, and that White stabbed him in self-defense.
In the end, the jury at White’s criminal trial acquitted him on the manslaughter charge. White was sentenced to two years of probation on a minor charge associated with the case.
“My eyebrows were raised when I saw the initial media reports,” remembers Hill. “The reports were that this rich young developer was murdered and the suspect was a young Black kid. Then I saw Michael White being led out, doing the perp walk, and I said, ‘Is this really the face of a killer?’ Then I started looking around more on social media, and a lot of things started coming out. There was lots of racially charged language. The comments on the Philly.com comments section were horrifying. Vile and disgusting … Was the victim a racist? Or was he not? A lot of people said he wasn’t because he had a lot of Black friends. Was the knife a weapon, or was the knife just a means of protection?”
This isn’t the first time the filmmaker has tackled controversial topics. His 2006 documentary The Shame of a City (available for free streaming through December via the link provided) chronicled the 2003 mayoral race between incumbent John Street and Sam Katz, his Republican challenger — including the infamous (possibly fabricated) bugging scandal that may have cost Katz the win.
Hill’s 2010 film Barrel of a Gun, also available for free streaming through December, delved into the decades-long saga of convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal (and earned a scathing review from longtime Philly Mag scribe Jason Fagone.)
While Hill has faced some criticism for being one-sided in his previous films, he says the Schellenger case is “a tragedy on both sides,” adding, “You can look at the various media articles and social media and think what you want. But then you sit down with them and hear what they all went through. And you can’t help but have sympathy for both.”
Hill says the film offers some never-before-seen details and perspectives from both sides about what happened that night in Rittenhouse Square.
“The trial was a joke,” Schellenger’s mother tells Hill in the movie, as you’ll see in the trailer below. “It was a finely played play directed by Larry Krasner.”
Hill also intends to reveal what forces were at work behind the scenes, forces he claims spread misinformation through both news media and social media.
He began 72 Seconds in Rittenhouse Square after White’s acquittal on the manslaughter charge in October 2019, securing participation from representatives from each side and the former DA who originally brought the case to court. (Krasner’s office declined to comment for the film.)
“I knew it was gonna be hard to get people to come to the table, but eventually, they did,” says Hill. “In the end, everybody wants their story told in the way they want it told — in the way that it happened or the way they perceive it.”
Once COVID hit, the filmmaker was forced to move interviews outside — some of them right in Rittenhouse Square park itself, near where White killed Schellenger. He adds that COVID will also affect the release of the documentary. While he insists the movie will be completed in the spring of 2021 (he’s editing now and says he has a major distributor interested, but declined to get into details on the record), he’s going to hold the release until people can have a more communal experience.
“This is going to be a forum for people to gather and have discussions about the issues the movie raises,” Hill observes. “Because it’s not just about what happened that day. It’s also about what’s going on in the nation.”
Until then, you can watch the trailer here.
Below, the just-released trailer for 72 Seconds In Rittenhouse Square, the upcoming Tigre Hill documentary about the killing of Sean Schellenger by Michael White: