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‘Just Mercy’ Pulls Curtain Back on Criminal Justice System, Revealing Heart of America’s Forgotten Crisis

“For me, this whole book, movie, and story is about opening up more space in our relationships with one another for forgiveness, redemption, grace, and reconciliation. If we do that, I think we get closer not only to healthier communities, but the kind of kingdom communities that so many of us feel called to create.” – Bryan Stevenson

Pastor Joshua Symonette wiped away tears as he addressed the media and other faith leaders following a preview screening of “Just Mercy,” a major motion picture adapted from the best-selling autobiography of attorney Bryan Stevenson.

Symonette leads the northern Virginia campus of National Community Church, based in Washington, D.C. 

“Incarceration has impacted my immediate family. I’m 41 years old. My uncle has been in prison for thirty-something years. It’s not something I talk a lot about, so watching this film was really emotional for me,” he said.

Few big-budget Hollywood films starring A-list actors like Michael B. Jordan (Creed), Brie Larson (Captain Marvel), and Jamie Foxx (Ray) garner such personal responses. Brought to the big screen by Warner Bros. and One Community, “Just Mercy” stands in a class by itself. On one hand, the film keeps family relationships at its center, showing the dignity of hard work and beauty of close bonds in the American South.

On the other hand, over its two-hour runtime, viewers learn a surprising amount about the U.S. justice system. “Just Mercy” follows how Walter McMillian (Foxx), unjustly accused of murder in 1987 and awaiting his execution in a state prison, worked with a young attorney who made history in overturning his sentence. McMillian had been sent to death row before being convicted of a crime.

The close involvement of best-selling author and lawyer Bryan Stevenson, today age 60, in telling his own on-screen story clearly fed into its legal acumen. His nonprofit public-interest law firm, Equal Justice Initiative, has now been involved in reversing over 140 death row convictions.

“There is a real absence of knowledge about what happens to people,” Stevenson said in a phone interview with Faithfully Magazine. “You can say somebody is treated unfairly—but until you see how that plays out, you don’t really get it. I think our criminal justice system treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. People don’t have an appreciation of what that means.”

Joshua DuBois, head of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships under President Barack Obama and founder of Values Partnerships, hosted the recent D.C. film screening.

“Justice and grace are central to the gospel, as we see in (the book) Just Mercy,” DuBois said.

“This film is about how our lives matter. We’re here because we have been fearfully and wonderfully made,” he continued. “God stitched us together and set us on a course that matters in this life. So any structural injustice or individual harm that throws us off that course must be addressed.”

When Racism Hits Home

In chapters of his life story not adapted for the film, Stevenson reveals his own encounters with race-based discrimination in the 1960s and early 1970s. Even after schools were formally desegregated, swimming pool facilities for Whites remained off-limits to Black boys like him. He says only in one sphere of his young life did he find a haven of equal opportunity.

“Growing up where I did, it was the faith community that created opportunities for me to find my voice,” Stevenson said. “We were poor and marginalized, excluded even. The church was the only place that you could be heard, that you could explore your talents, feel affirmed, and be treated without any concerns about your humanity.”

The central figure of “Just Mercy” mirrors those realities.

Walter McMillian, known as “Johnny D” in Monroeville, Alabama, came up from poverty and started his own logging business. For a Black man to become a successful business owner in the socially segregated town made some Whites suspicious. McMillian was often stopped and questioned without cause by police officers as he drove home from work.

In summer of 1987, the unsolved murder of a young White woman had haunted local law enforcement for seven months and “Johnny D” proved an easy fall man. The next time he was pulled over, he wasn’t released.

By the end of a months-long legal ordeal, McMillian faced trumped-up charges and a life sentence. However, an Alabama judge later overrode the jury’s decision and imposed the death penalty, despite a lack of evidence.

“Black and Brown people have been dehumanized in many ways in our country,” said Michelle DuBois, who works with her husband at Values Partnerships. “We have to talk about that in a very truthful and uncomfortable way—not for the sake of making people uncomfortable, but because if we don’t have that conversation, we won’t see how we’ve gotten to this point.”

McMillian spent six years on death row, a grim environment marked by concrete and razor wire that audiences come to know well in “Just Mercy.” Early in the film, Stevenson (portrayed by Jordan) meets the large family of “Johnny D”—his wife, Minnie (played by Karan Kendrick), and their nine children. After their disastrous ordeal with a public defender, it takes some convincing for the couple to allow Stevenson to take the case.

“You don’t put one innocent person on death row,” Stevenson said during our interview. “You put their whole family and community in a place of distress and crisis. Until you see that, you underestimate the cost of the kind of inequality and injustice that the courts often sustain.”

Just Mercy Poster Art
MICHAEL B. JORDAN stars as Bryan Stevenson in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama JUST MERCY.

Criminal Justice, Then And Now

Stevenson, a Harvard Law School graduate, made waves with local and state authorities in Alabama when he attempted to have McMillian’s case reopened. In “Just Mercy,” Jordan, channeling Stevenson, presses the issue in a scene that has him deliver one of the film’s best lines: “It’s not my job to make people happy. It’s to achieve justice.”

In the award-winning actor’s 2018 blockbuster film, “Black Panther,” viewers see justice delivered through brute strength, better tech, magic, and the power of friendship.

“Just Mercy” shows what it takes to reverse an unjust criminal sentence in the real world: reams of paperwork, persistence, a competent team, new factual evidence, and persuasive arguments grounded in Constitutional law. McMillian’s appeals process progressed through multiple state and federal courts.

“My work can be really clinical, procedural, and technical,” Stevenson said.

Over the past two years, a bipartisan coalition centered on criminal justice reform has brought reprieve to some prisoners. The First Step Act, an effort that brought together Van Jones, Mike Huckabee, Sen. Cory Booker, and Kim Kardashian, provides retroactive sentence reductions and limits certain mandatory minimum sentences. The act also mandates that pregnant women can no longer be shackled.

Since signed into law on December 21, 2018, the First Step Act has led to over 2,000 Americans receiving sentence reductions and another 2,000 released on “earned time credit.” Although Stevenson views the legislation as “important,” the attorney described it as “insufficient, in terms of the actual number of people in jails and prisons.”

“We’ve gone from 300,000 people in jails and prisons in the 1970s to 2.2 million people today,” he told The New York Times last year. “We have to radically reorient ourselves and start talking about rehabilitation, restoration and how we end crime. And if we do that, we’re going to come to very different choices than we’ve come to in this era of overincarceration, where the response to everything is punishment.”

Deeply invested in reform efforts, Stevenson believes people of faith have a significant role to play in ensuring fair treatment for all.

“The Gospels require us to feed the hungry, to pay attention to those who are in jails and prisons, and to be mindful of the needs of the poor and the oppressed,” he said. “The church broadly has to be more active on questions of justice.”

Through Values Partnerships, Joshua DuBois has become adept at uniting people of faith with diverse political views for the common good.

“Sometimes we get into this belief that it has to be an either-or,” DuBois said of the short-sighted thinking he often observes among Evangelical Christians. “Either we’re doing individual charity, or looking at systemic issues. What we see in the life and work of Bryan Stevenson is that you can do both.”

“You can be compassionate and driven by your faith to serve and support individuals,” DuBois continued. “You can also pull back and ask the question: Why? Why are people in this position in the first place? What can we do about the injustice around us?”

Along with Prison Fellowship and others, DuBois is now pressing for Congress to take up the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act. The bill would provide the incarcerated greater access to educational opportunities.

Jordan Stevenson Just Mercy movie
Michael B. Jordan and Bryan Stevenson are seen Dec. 17, 2019, at a Newark Community Screening of “JUST MERCY.” (Photo: Dave Alloca)

Forgiveness At the Heart

“Just Mercy” refuses to flatten and simplify its characters, presenting honestly how “Johnny D” had an affair prior to his arrest. Yet, his wife worked tirelessly over six years to see her husband’s unjust sentence overturned.

“Damn fool hurt me bad, but he’s still the father of my kids,” Minnie McMillian says in a pivotal scene.

Stevenson confirmed that this subplot and McMillian’s courage ring true to real life.

“Walter McMillan wasn’t a perfect husband, but he was a human being whose dignity and basic rights were being taken from him,” he said. “No one in his family thought that was right and they stood up for him.”

Pastor Symonette rejects what he sees as society’s habit of “throwing people away.”

“It’s a dehumanizing pattern where we see people for less than who they are, based off of mistakes and lapses in judgment that they have made,” he said. “Being a Christ-follower really forces me to see people as image-bearers regardless of what they have done.”

Recognizing how Christian principles of forgiveness are complex, Stevenson pivots to the larger concept of mercy and its impact on justice.

“We are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” he told Faithfully Magazine. “I’ve been making that argument throughout my career. I believe that someone who tells a lie, they’re not just a liar. Even if someone kills another person, they’re not just a killer. Justice requires we understand what else we are.”

Such is the strength of “Just Mercy,” as it leaves viewers with much to ponder and actions to take. Its impact will likely result in several movie award nominations amid a growing multi-pronged advocacy coalition coalesced around it.

“For me, this whole book, movie, and story is about opening up more space in our relationships with one another for forgiveness, redemption, grace, and reconciliation,” Stevenson said. “If we do that, I think we get closer not only to healthier communities, but the kind of kingdom communities that so many of us feel called to create.”

Rated PG-13 for thematic content including some racial epithets, “Just Mercy” opens in theaters everywhere on January 10.

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Josh M. Shepherd
Josh M. Shepherd
Josh M. Shepherd writes on culture, faith, and public policy issues for media outlets including The Stream, Religion & Politics, The Federalist, and Christianity Today. A graduate of the University of Colorado, he previously worked on staff at The Heritage Foundation and Focus on the Family. You can find him on Twitter @joshmshep. Josh and his wife live in the Washington, D.C., area with their son.