On what I thought was just another Friday night at the movies, I had the privilege of viewing the new film Just Mercy (dir. Destin Daniel Cretton). I had seen the preview once before and only knew that it was about a lawyer moving to Alabama to help an innocent man on death row.
It was much more. The first theme the film artfully evokes is repetition – through time, through history. It checks all the boxes of a civil rights movie – corrupt law enforcement, flawed families, death threats – but that is because the real stories themselves almost always check those boxes. History repeats itself. People make the same mistakes over and over, and people have to pay for them, over and over. The guilty party, however, is not the person paying the price. Racism distorts the age-old truth that we all must endure the consequences of our actions. It twists, tangles, and turns it into: “You must pay for my mistakes, my flaws, my sins. You did nothing wrong, but who’s going to believe you?”
Just Mercy is the story of an attorney, Bryan Stevenson, who believes them. He helps a number of prisoners, free of charge – sometimes successfully, sometimes not. He offers them hope and healing. He is unlike any lawyer they’ve ever had – if they’ve ever had one at all. They are penniless; their families are suffering. They are waiting to die. One of the men is a Vietnam War veteran who has been diagnosed with PTSD; he remarks that at least his comrades who died didn’t have to spend months in anticipation of the end.
I tried to imagine, and I felt sorrowful; but no one can really imagine that. I’ve seen links to pictures of prisoners’ last meals, but I’ve never clicked on one. Next time, I will. I’ve heard stories of families forgiving their loved one’s killer, in car accidents and such. I hope forgiveness will govern our actions more than self-interest. I hope the truth will matter more to me than my grades, or my money, or my possessions. I hope there’s more mercy out there than before, because we all certainly need more than the world can give us. I echo the words of Jeffrey R. Holland:
“I am grateful that God is merciful and a peacemaker because I need mercy and the world needs peace.”Jeffrey R. Holland, “Be Ye Therefore Perfect – Eventually” (October 2017 General Conference)
Just Mercy is based on Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. The Equal Justice Initiative, his grassroots, non-profit organization, continues to provide legal counsel to prisoners on death row today from their headquarters in Montgomery, Alabama. For every 9 executions, 1 death row prisoner is exonerated.