The other night I attended ‘Just Mercy’ at our local theater complex. It was a late showing, but still I was struck with wonder about the emptiness of the room. I was actually the only person in the theater, it was a rather surreal experience. Now I’ve been to shows with limited audience in the past, shows of little consequence, a comedy that has run its course, the latest version of Die Hard or Transformers after a several week run at the theater house. However, the lack of eyes on this show about Brian Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative upset me on many levels.
In theaters nearby, people poured into the late night showings of Star Wars, and 1917. I wondered to myself, as I gazed around the empty space on a Saturday night, is this really due to the content of the film? ‘Just Mercy’ is receiving rave reviews, and it opened ten days ago on the 10th of January. Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. day and I have thought about this movie’s impact on me all weekend long.
Brian Stevenson began the Equal Justice Initiative in the late ’80’s to defend the false imprisonment of the incarcerated on death row. He has dedicated his life to this cause as executive director and founder of EJI. “Mr. Stevenson is a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned” (eji.org). His central focus is to give a voice to those whose lives are marginalized by bigotry and social injustice. Do not for a minute believe he is wanting to release a criminal to the streets, that would be the short answer to defend injustice. His voice is meant to defend the innocence inside a legal mindset bent upon maintaining systemic atrocity in our society.
The movie is focused upon his commitment to releasing several prisoners, namely Walter McMillan, a falsely accused black man who was sent to death row a year before his eventual trial and conviction. Stevenson managed to get the case reopened through avenues only he could challenge as a young black attorney walking directly in the fire of a racist prosecution in Alabama. His case eventually won the attention of a 60 Minutes expose that revealed the truths of McMillan’s plight in a closed door, self protective, small-minded community filled with hatred and denial.
‘Just Mercy’ focused on the familiar haves and have nots, a poignant moment being when at the start of a heated hearing, the sheriff and his deputies refuse to allow McMillan’s family and friends to enter the courtroom until the room is filled with white community members leaving little space for additional seating. The scene that follows is compelling. While all the seats are taken the room is filled with a community who stands together in strength and courage despite living their lives in fear and injustice.
The poignant message in this movie speaks to a familiar issue in our society today. The color of your skin will have a demonstrable impact upon the treatment and respect received in a confused and racist society. Today, in social justice there is a new mantra being heard that would suggest we practice being anti-racist. The idea of being non-racist no longer being enough. I believe that was the central argument in ‘Just Mercy’ not only creating another intriguing and frightening appraisal of the horrific treatment of blacks in a white dominated region of our country. More important is the implication of not stepping forward, not feeling a need to speak, not recognizing our responsibility to be human beings rather than misguided classes of distinction.
Today on MLK day, I try to celebrate the truth, and the timing and message in ‘Just Mercy’ cannot be denied. For years I have had to work on this day, and always struggled with not being able to focus upon the spirited and remarkable nature of Martin Luther King Jr’s amazing legacy. In the background I’m listening to an MLK celebration at the Apollo Theater with responsible and outstanding voices, including moments ago, Brian Stevenson, speaking not to a movie made about his life, more specifically about his continued journey with EJI. I miss Maya Angelou today.
I cannot think of a better way to celebrate the message of MLK Jr.
© Thom Amundsen 1/20/2020
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