Bryan Stevenson, attorney and author of “Just Mercy,” should join Atticus Finch, the iconic pursuer of social justice in “To Kill A Mockingbird, as American role models. A major difference, of course, is Stevenson did actually risk his life in southern towns for more than 30 years seeking to prevent racial injustice. Atticus should be preserved in cinema history for doing his best in the 1930s to defend one man falsely accused of a crime, but it falls short of what is required in 2020.
Stevenson’s “Just Mercy” is the basis for a current movie by the same name starring Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan. They dramatically tell the story of two men, Walter “Johnny D” McMillian and Anthony Ray Hinton, each wrongfully convicted in Alabama for murders they did not commit, and Stevenson’s dogged commitment to free them and to challenge death penalty practices in the United States. The movie is an accurate depiction of about one-half of Stevenson’s 2014 book. Stevenson is gifted, courageous and tireless in discussing America’s current epidemic of mass incarcerations and excessive sentencing.
McMillian was arrested in 1987 in Monroeville, Alabama, home of "To Kill a Mockingbird" author Harper Lee, where the streets are still named for characters in the classic 1962 movie. Unfortunately, McMillian is from the other side of town and reportedly unaware of his town’s standing in American literature.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Just Mercy” are similar in that both Tom Robinson and Walter McMillian are hard-working, gainfully employed men whose crime is involvement with white woman, either directly or indirectly. Robinson is accused of raping a woman “who he felt sorry for” because of her family’s abuse and McMillian is the victim of a rush to solve a crime in a community where he was an outcast because of his affair with a white woman.
Both dramas have a moving, heart-breaking scene where both Stevenson and Atticus drive a visit with the prisoner’s families to tell them their legal appeals have failed. The movie “Just Mercy” captures in a touching and humane way, the inhuman injustices experienced by McMillian and Hinton and other men with whom they share death row. The prisoners experience community by sharing the trauma of awaiting execution by talking to one another cell-to-cell without being able to see one another. A tender moment is when McMillian coaches another convict to prepare for his execution with yoga-like breathing exercises; an uncomfortably disturbing moment is hearing the prisoners describe how the aroma of a human execution smells and hangs in the air for days.
Wrongful convictions are estimated to occur about 10% of the time with more than 3,000 exonerations to date in the U.S., with the average time incarcerated about nine years. Improvements in DNA technology are largely responsible for convictions being overturned. The movie “Just Mercy” focuses on the cases of grown men wrongly convicted in Alabama because of the legacy of racist thinking by judges, juries and prosecutors. The movie “Just Mercy” leaves out Stevenson’s efforts to overturn the life without possibility of parole sentences for juveniles, including 13- and 14-year-olds in nonhomicide cases. Among Stevenson’s legal accomplishments are winning four of the five cases he argued before the Supreme Court, cases prohibiting the execution of juveniles and mentally disabled.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is enjoying a resurgence on Broadway this year. The production has been modernized by reducing gender stereotypes, deleting the scene where Atticus shoots a rabid dog and adding an older Scout going off to law school. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is disturbing because Tom is wrongfully convicted and ends up dead while Atticus rides off as an iconic attorney and father. The 2019-20 version should have had Atticus explain to his children the frequency of racial injustice, and encouraged them to join a protest at the Maycomb County Courthouse.
Stevenson spoke at MU in 2016 where a major theme was the importance of gaining “proximity” to understand people and social situations. “Just Mercy,” both the book and the film, capture Stevenson’s extraordinary efforts to meet the men he was aiming to assist. Prisoners, and most of the “least, lost and lonely” among us are too often assisted by over-extended caseworkers and lawyers who don’t have the time, and maybe not the desire, to really understand their clients. Stevenson seems to be motivated by compassion for real defendants rather than solely an advocate for the principle of equal justice.
Stevenson is currently executive director of the Equal Justice Institute in Montgomery, Alabama, where he has established the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice to record and preserve the victims of slavery and lynching.
“Just Mercy” is playing in Columbia’s two big theaters at least until the end of this week. In case you miss it, there is the HBO documentary “True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality” available on YouTube.