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‘Just Mercy’ is must viewing for white Americans



Published: 2/14/2020 5:00:27 PM

The film “Just Mercy” is a must see for white Americans and a horrific reminder for people of color (the global majority) of the systemic racism they experience daily.

Like numerous other films including “Harriet,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Marshall,” “Just Mercy” captures the bigotry that continues to pervade our culture. Bryan Stevenson, whose book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” was the inspiration for the film. He has been working to save black men on death row for 30 years and throughout he has been confronted by the injustice based on race that is pervasive in the so-called criminal justice system.

The film brings this home on many levels, including the price paid by the families of these men, and should thus be required viewing.

We live in a country that still enables states to carry out the inhumane death penalty, which is horrific enough, but when racism is added and statistics like the fact that 56% of the death row inmates are black or Hispanic are brought to light, the injustice is even more profound.

In a recent New York Times article entitled, “The Injustice of This Moment Is Not an ‘Aberration’: From mass incarceration to mass deportation, our nation remains in deep denial,” author Michelle Alexander challenges us to connect the dots of the racism that is omni-present in both the prison and immigrant deportation systems.

“Once human beings are defined as the problem in the public consciousness, their elimination through deportation, incarceration or even genocide becomes nearly inevitable,” writes Alexander, author in 2010 of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness.”

She then contends that, “the Trump administration’s First Step Act, which benefits people of color subject to harsh and biased drug sentencing laws, is difficult to characterize as major progress toward ending mass incarceration, given that Trump continues to unleash racially hostile tirades against communities of color and his administration vowed to reinstate the federal death penalty. He also rescinded a number of significant reforms adopted by Obama and expanded the use of private prisons.”

We owe much gratitude for the work of Mr. Stevenson, whose Equal Justice Initiative has saved 140 individuals, who were victims of injustice, from death row. He has argued and won multiple cases at the U.S. Supreme Court, including a 2019 ruling protecting condemned prisoners who suffer from dementia and a landmark 2012 ruling that banned mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger.

But there is much work that remains to change our laws to prevent further damage to existing laws and to combat racism. While the film of his book focuses on one of the men who was exonerated, it is equally important to remember that, as the words express during the credits at the end of the film, “For every nine people executed, one person on death row has been exonerated.”

This is a deeply disturbing statistic and one that, even though there is triumph at the end of the film, we must not forget. There remain horrendous racial disparities in the continued legality of a death penalty that does not support our nation’s ideals.

The film, “Just Mercy,” despite its many merits including outstanding acting and directing, received no Academy Award nominations. That’s one more instance of racism.

Bryan Stevenson is speaking at Smith College on Tuesday, March 31, at 5 p.m., at John M. Greene Hall. His talk is free and open to the public. I encourage you to attend to hear both the story of how and what he has accomplished and about the work that remains to be done for the criminal justice system to live up to its name.

Tom Weiner lives in Northampton.



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