“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” – Dostoevsky
And if you enter our prisons in the United Kingdom, you will see these places weren’t built for rehabilitation, but for degeneration. And American prisons are not any different. These places are designed, purpose-built to break people’s spirits, sapping its inmates of all hope. On entering HMP Onley, there was this almost dystopian tinge, and I was only there for a few hours.
So, when I went to watch Just Mercy on Thursday night, about convicted-then-acquitted murderer Walter McMillian, I went into that screening with a conscious bias of how prisons do not treat inmates like human beings and it was as if the entire Black population was on Death Row.
Moreover, how the US criminal justice system is a tool of institutional violence, if you happen to be Black / poor (State of Tennessee v. Cyntoia Brown), rather than White / rich (The People v. Turner). And this injustice is widespread across America; however, the same structural violence, often racism, is pertinent to the British criminal justice system too (Lammy 2017, Macpherson 1999), as well as institutional use of their privilege to blame The People rather than take responsibility (Grenfell, Hillsborough).
Just Mercy tells a story of Black insurrection against White authority. After graduating Harvard, a young lawyer, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), journeys to Alabama to represent those wrongly convicted or not given proper representation. In the tint of Jim Crow Laws, most of these men are Black, second-class citizens outside and then second-class prisoners inside.
One of his early cases was that of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who is put on deathrow in 1987 for the murder of an eighteen year-old White girl, regardless of the evidence proving his innocence. Throughout the case, Stevenson battles political and legal maneuverings, as well as overt and institutional racism, all in the name of fighting for his client. A man who happened to be Black in the state of Alabama, easy pickings for a system that eats Black people (especially men), for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Meeting many people quickly, including Walter’s family, Bryan turns from naive boy out of law school into a man that soon sees the epidemic that’s festered in a post-Jim Crow South, venturing further into the case soon seeing how unwilling the State of Alabama is to release an innocent man.
The State knows he didn’t do it, but they’d rather lock up a Black man then one of their own. The cliché of “savage” Black men killing “fair” White girls and women goes back to slavery, including how D. W. Griffith’s Birth of Nation was responsible for the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan.
The United States of America is supposed to be the “land of the free” but it is home to 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s inmates (13th). What’s that about?
Just Mercy is a tear-jerker for sure, and begs the question, “Did Walter McMillian receive his just mercy?” This legal drama is an indictment on the racism you can’t see. It’s not about being called “nigger” in the street, but about policymakers who clearly have a conscious bias, who are consciously racist enforcing laws, and create a culture of racism among their colleagues. i.e prisons. A grim indictment on prisons but also the state of the American national memory that has never shaken its slave-trading history, as Stevenson witnesses images of cotton pickers that look exactly like him.
I cannot fault Michael B. Jordan’s stellar lead performance. The fact that this man hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar yet is criminal. First seeing him as Wallace in HBO’s The Wire (unarguably one of the greatest TV series ever made) to Creed, Fruitvale Station and Black Panther, Just Mercy is just his latest excellent performance. As Bryan Stevenson, Michael B. Jordan is a testament to Black men, as Sidney Poitier was in To Sir with Love and David Oyelowo in Queen of Katwe. He’s the do-gooder, activist, straight jacket.
This picture stands with Ava DuVernay’s Selma, When They See Us and 13th, all of which are sobering accounts of racism and bureaucratic White Power, and how it is used to step on poor people and people of colour, as well as the fiction of everyone is equal under the law. Seeing the over-policing of Black people in this film – from the nature of McMillian’s arrest to Stevenson being strip-searched on his way into prison, I couldn’t help getting caught up in its themes of social justice, equality and equity, especially after being stop and searched myself by police at fourteen.
“Children of immigrants are often assured by well-meaning parents that educational access to the middle classes can absolve them from racism. We are told to work hard, go to a good university, and get a good job.”
Reni Eddo-LodgeWhy I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race
Stevenson may not be a child of immigrants, but there is still this notion that even today being Black and wealthy can absolve you of racism. Stevenson went to Harvard but was still strip searched in a prison before going to meet clients. David Lammy and Diane Abbot, both MPs, face racism daily. As does journalist, former-barrister and Brit(ish) author Afua Hirsch. Meghan Markle married into one of the most elite families in the world, but still faces racism from the right-wing British press and was then forced to leave the UK. Black Britain understands Meghan. Point taken, Reni.
Whilst this film uses many clichés, including the broken prisoner trope, it is so well-acted. And this is not just a film, it’s a truth-to-power comment on laws as tools of institutional violence. Walter got his mercy, but I don’t think it was just. How many Walters are on death row because they’re at the mercy of a system still operating in a white supremacist power structure?
And really, violent crimes (i.e murder) are only given scope when a White person is involved. White empathy to Black insurrection is a tale that goes back to colonial times. The shock of White audiences to films like this is what separates them from us. People of colour expect to be unequal under the law (i.e Central Park 5) because that is our norm. But to White people, it’s in their norm to expect a fair trial because that’s their lived experience.
So, if we take history as a guide, can you really blame Black and brown communities for being critical (almost cynical) of a system that has done nothing but treat us with contempt?
13th. (2017). [Online]. Directed by Ava DuVernay. America: Kandoo Films [Viewed January 11, 2020]. Available from Netflix.
Birth of a Nation. (1915). [Online]. Directed by D. W. Griffith. America: David W. Griffith Corp [Viewed January 8, 2020]. Available from YouTube.
Eddo-Lodge, R. (2017). Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury.
Hirsch, A (2018). Brit(ish). London: Vintage.
Home Office. (1999). The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. (Chairperson: William Macpherson). London: TSO.
Ministry of Justice (2017). The Lammy Review. (Chairperson: David Lammy MP). London: TSO
Nashville-Davidson County’s Juvenile Court. (2004). The State of Tennessee vs Cyntoia Denise Brown. (Ruling Judge: Betty Adams Green).
Santa Clara County Superior Court (2016). The People of the State of California v. Brock Allen Turner. (Ruling Judge: Aaron Persky).
Selma. (2014). [Online]. Directed by Ava DuVernay. America: Pathé et al [Viewed January 10, 2020]. Available from Netflix.
When They See Us. (2019). Netflix Television, May 2019.