By Marie-Renee Goulet

The movie is based on the true story of Harvard Law graduate Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan). After declining lucrative job offers, he uses a federal grant to open a legal defense office in Alabama with the help of a local activist Eva Ansley (the brilliant Brie Larson). They run in many difficulties as their choice to defend people who have been wrongly convicted is seen as freeing criminals. They are not welcome in Monroeville, where the fictional To Kill A Mockingbird was set.

One of their first and most turbulent cases is Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who was sentenced to death in 1987 for the murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite strong evidence of his innocence. 

Based on Bryan Stevenson’s memoirs, the movie opens with McMillan driving home from work. As he sees a roadblock ahead of him, he stops and ensures both his hands are visible above the steering wheel. He knows the drill. It quickly turns into an ugly arrest as the officers were waiting for him specifically. He finds himself sentenced to death for a horrible murder he did not commit. Jamie Foxx’s performance is touching and modulated. He is a man broken by a relentless system that sent him to death row before his trial. He was also burned by a dishonest lawyer who over promised and under-delivered until his money ran out. When we find him a few years later on death row, he is resigned to his fate, angry and hopeless. This is a system that sees every black man as a monolith; they are all criminals. If there was a crime, so long as a black man is his jail, justice is done. The dehumanizing is complete. In an interview, the real Stevenson comments: “It was ironic to have people in the community tell me, ‘You’re a lawyer, you should go to the “To Kill a Mockingbird” Museum,'” Stevenson says. “I had the same response every time: ‘I’d love to, but I’m really busy freeing an innocent black man who has been wrongly convicted of a crime and facing execution.’ The disconnect between romanticizing that story and indifference to injustice in a real wrongful conviction, that very much parallels my story.”

Bryan and Eva diligently set out to accomplish their goals, which expose the depth of the injustices and willful blindness of the legal system. 

At every opportunity, the residents, the police, the prosecutor and politician make sure that Stevenson understands that he is a black man in the south. Initially, the key witness for the prosecution, Ralph Myer (Tim Blake Nelson), comes across as a low life without a conscience. Soon we discover why he lied in court. Once again, the systematic way “justice” is conducted is exposed for what it is. Tim Blake Nelson is perfect at playing the full arc of the character. 

I admire Stevenson not only for his life choice but for his attitude in the face of such overt racism. He doesn’t back down but remains introspective and focuses on the outcome. After a setback, looking out at the Alabama River, he says: 

“Nobody wants to remember that this is where thousands of enslaved people were shipped in and paraded up the street to be sold. Just ten miles from here, black people were pulled from their homes and lynched. Nobody talks about it. And now this black boy from Delaware walks into their courtrooms and expects them to admit they convicted an innocent black man.” Jordan’s performance is fittingly subdued.

There are very touching scenes between the men on death row as the movie reminds us that guilty or not, all are human and that each of us is more than the worst thing that we’ve ever done.

As terrible as the racism shown in the movie is, it is rated PG 13. Director Destin Daniel Cretton (The Glass Castle) chose to follow a safe movie structure and properly sanitized to ensure a family-friendly rating. I’m not advocating that children be exposed to things they are not ready for, but I think the current sociopolitical climate is not PG 13 and that certain realities should be exposed for what they are. 

This is a good movie, and I would say a must-see in 2020.

Today, M. Stevenson is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and a professor of law at New York University Law School. A real-life Atticus Finch.

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