Saturday, February 1, 2020

Just Mercy

Director Destin Daniel Cretton

Bryan Stevenson

Actor Michael B. Jordan (left) with Bryan Stevenson

JUST MERCY            B                   
USA  (136 mi)  2019  d: Destin Daniel Cretton                     Official site

The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson (354 pages), 2014

Inspired by real events, the film follows the aspiring career of Harvard educated lawyer Bryan Stevenson, Michael B. Jordan from Fruitvale Station (2013), soft-spoken and reserved, always showing restraint, formally dressed in a suit and tie, adapting his 2014 published memoirs by the same name, growing up in a poor rural community, initially working out of a private residence before setting up practice of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, a law office providing free legal representation to prisoners condemned to death row in the state of Alabama who have been denied access to a fair trial.  According to the film, Bryan Stevenson has worked to release 140 death row inmates in Alabama, where one in 9 death row inmates have been exonerated based on wrongful convictions, resulting in exonerations far higher than for any other category of criminal convictions, where perjury/false accusations and official misconduct are the leading causes of wrongful convictions, which typically go unchallenged by the court appointed lawyers, exposing poor blacks to an unequal judicial process where justice for the poor almost never happens, as it’s reserved instead for the wealthy elite who can pay for it, effectively dividing the nation into two separate and unequal factions where the law is applied differently, disclaiming the inscription engraved into the U.S. Supreme Court building that promises “Equal Justice Under Law.”  Made by the director of Short Term 12 (2013), Hawaiian filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton integrated his own personal experiences from working at a group home for at-risk teenagers in pursuit of altering our perceptions of kids stuck in a dehumanized system struggling for survival.  Here he examines the inequities of the death penalty when empowered and administered by Jim Crow ethical standards, where obtaining a conviction by law and order district attorneys supersedes any pursuit for the truth, as this is the political platform they run on to get elected, making the community a safer place to live, which all but excludes the black community, where residents historically are forced to live in fear of the police and the authoritatively repressive judicial system where innocent men routinely get charged and convicted for crimes they never committed.  Added to the mix are prisoners who did commit crimes, but were sentenced with greater severity due to an inherent bias leveled against blacks.  The effects of racism, such a prevalent condition in our society, continue to exist on so many levels, yet the place where its impact is felt the most is the judicial system where blacks continue to be warehoused into lengthy periods of incarceration at record levels, where there aren’t enough lawyers assisting the poor, and racial minorities are routinely excluded from jury service, particularly in poor rural counties, making it difficult to put an end to these reprehensible and often antiquated practices.  Major cities are not immune from this same racial differentiation, as blacks nationwide are 30% more likely than whites to be sent to prison for committing the exact same crime (Sentencing Commission Finds Black Men Receive Longer ...).  While this film shines a light to expose the inequities, accentuating trials that are marked by blatant racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct while highlighting the damage done to families and communities, yet this inherent racial bias has simply become a routinely accepted standard deeply entrenched into the fabric of the judicial system in America, where the death penalty is a direct descendant of lynching.  By 1915, court-ordered executions outpaced lynchings for the first time.  Two-thirds of people executed in the 1930’s were black, yet even after the African-American share of the South’s population fell to just 22% by 1950, 75% of people executed in the South were black.  More than eight in ten lynchings between 1889 and 1918 occurred in the South, as did more than eight in ten of the nearly 1500 executions carried out in this country since 1976 (Death Penalty - Equal Justice Initiative). 

One of the inherent flaws of the Hollywood system is there aren’t enough black filmmakers given the opportunity to make films like this, so the stories continue to be told by people outside the black community, offering a more stereotypical vantage point and a decidedly different emotional texture, where the structure of the film itself becomes stereotyped as a crusader movie, where in this case the “white savior” has been replaced by a “black savior,” yet in Alabama, the ultimate decisions are rendered by white judges from one of three appellate courts, the state Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals, and Court of Civil Appeals, totaling 19 judges, where there is a noticeable absence of black judges in such prestigious positions, (Why Aren't There More Black Federal Judges in Alabama ...).  One of just five states that hold partisan, statewide elections for judges (in a state that is nearly 70% white, where judges boast during their campaigns about the number of death sentences they’ve imposed), since 1994 every black candidate for the state’s 19 appellate judgeships has lost to a white candidate, with the courts remaining all-white and all-Republican (including 41 of the state’s 42 elected district attorneys), where according to a 2012 report, white judges are four times more likely than minority judges to dismiss race discrimination cases.  Despite overwhelming evidence to suggest bias that stems from the days of slavery to Jim Crow to lynching, where the original commerce conducted in Montgomery, Alabama was in enslaved people, the location of Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative office is just steps away from where they once held massive slave auctions, bringing people off the boat, parading them up and down the street in chains, becoming the most active slave-trading space in America for almost a decade, with dozens of cast-iron historical markers celebrating aspects of the Confederacy.  Little has been done historically to humanize the criminal justice system, with this film providing a face for viewers to empathize with, as one of the most incendiary cases is that of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), known as Johnny D, sentenced to death in 1987 for the murder of an 18-year old white girl who worked as a clerk in a dry cleaning store in Monroeville, Alabama, based solely on the questionable testimony of a white convict, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), ignoring multiple black alibi witnesses at the trial, which lasted just a day and a half.  While the jury sentenced him to life imprisonment, the judge (aptly named Robert E. Lee Key) overruled the jury and sentenced him to death, with judicial override accounting for 20% of the people currently sitting on death row in Alabama, a practice that was outlawed by the state in 2017, yet the state persists in executing people on death row prior to the implementation of the law.  Despite the flimsy evidence to convict, McMillian lost all his prior appeals for a new trial.  By the time Stevenson meets him in prison, he’s lost all hope, showing little interest in a wide-eyed Ivy League lawyer from the north who knows nothing about the ways of Alabama.  The tone of the film resembles IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967), pitting the legal sophistication of Stevenson against the antiquity of southern racism, where humiliating blacks and instilling fear is a way of life, fueled by a venomous culture of white supremacy that historically produced lynchings and killings, yet established in heinous acts just how blacks are treated in the Jim Crow South.  In contrast, Atticus Finch, the white court-appointed lawyer portrayed by Gregory Peck in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), was voted as the greatest hero of all American cinema in 2003 by the American Film Institute, AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains - Wikipedia, where the courtroom sequence of the film adaptation was set in a courthouse in that same Monroeville, Alabama that remains the town’s main tourist attraction.  Even in the UK, a 2016 literary survey voted Atticus Finch the most inspiring character in literature (To Kill a Mockingbird's Atticus Finch voted most inspiring ...).  And therein lies the problem with films like this, as the white idealization is overwhelming, requiring a Messiah-like figure to stand up to centuries of appalling racial animosity, making audiences feel good, but the entrenched systematic bias continues, where mass incarceration of black people actually defines the era we are currently living in.

While Stevenson has consistently been recognized as one of the 100 most influential lawyers in America, awarded a MacArthur Grant among a multitude of distinguished honors and awards, Brie Larson stars as Eva Ansley, adding Southern flavor as the local girl who becomes the operations director, described by Stevenson as “fearless and smart,” who’s been there since the beginning working side by side with Stevenson (actually starting on her dining room table), working long hours into the night, assisting him on his exhaustive research, providing administrative duties while handling the reporting and accounting of their federal funding.  While not an attorney, she’s a mom committed to rectifying what she sees as terrible injustices happening within her community, with most content to allow racial transgressions to continue unabated, but she feels a moral obligation to do something about it, to be on the side providing social justice.  While the film has a formulaic structure to it, the authenticity of the characters stand out, where the best moments are often reduced to small extended scenes in tiny rooms or prison cells, intimate conversations that don’t overreach, becoming remarkably poignant and quietly affecting, offering a deeply ingrained understanding of just who and what we’re dealing with.  Whether it be Stevenson’s visits to Holman Prison or the time spent with each of the death row prisoners he meets, their images are seared into the viewer’s imaginations, becoming permanent fixtures, with each telling their own story of how they became ostracized and rejected by society, stripped of any self-worth, dehumanized, often doubting their own innocence, as that guilty verdict has been drummed into their consciousness.  Stevenson’s role is to take each of these essentially dead souls and bring them back to life, challenging the negative stereotypes, where it’s easy to pass judgment, showing another side, one that viewers can relate to.  He starts by visiting McMillian’s family living on the outskirts of town, mirroring similar visits made by Atticus Finch, where one gets the feeling so little has changed for these families since the Civil Rights era of the last 50 years, where progress was granted to a few, yet a large majority in rural America were left behind, the living examples of a separate but unequal society.  While they’ve essentially taken away all that matters to McMillian, what’s clear is no one in his community thinks he did it, while the white community is in near unanimous agreement that he did.  So when a black lawyer starts poking around with these unsettling, racially tinged cases that already led to a conviction, the white community resents someone stirring up all these ancient memories, as they rest easily, content to lock him up and throw away the key, believing the case is closed.  Rafe Spall is Tommy Chapman, the newly elected white District Attorney, yet he shows no inclinations to reopen the case, believing Stevenson is alone and isolated, where he is perceived as no threat.  But the more he looks into these cases, the more he becomes convinced these cases are a travesty of justice, filing legal briefs bringing new evidence into light that question the legitimacy of the verdict, yet appeals courts in Alabama rarely overturn the convictions of death row inmates.  While there are setbacks along the way, and frequent intimidation tactics that recall the times of antiquity, one central focus of the film is witnessing in stark detail the execution of a prisoner, a chilling reminder of what this is all about, as Alabama consistently has one of the highest execution rates in the United States, executing 11 people convicted by juries of a life sentence, overridden by judges and instead condemned to die.  It’s an emotional tearjerker fraught with heartbreak and personal anguish, as setbacks are built into the system, creating an underlying feeling of helplessness and systematic malaise, but Stevenson and his crew persevere, growing his practice, hiring more staff, eventually accomplishing the unimaginable.

'I went to death row for 28 years through no fault of my own ...  Anthony Ray Hinton endured almost three decades behind bars on death row, wrongly convicted by Alabama’s racist judiciary system, telling his incredible story to Chris McGreal from The Guardian, April 1, 2018

Why Mass Incarceration Defines Us As a Society | People ...   Chris Hedges interview with Bryan Stevenson from Smithsonian magazine, December 2012

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