In 2018, Bryan Stevenson was awarded a honorary doctorate by the University of Bristol. The day before the award, my department, the Law School, hosted a small dinner in his honour. I was blessed to be invited, and to be in his presence. If you have read his book, Just Mercy: A story of justice and redemption or heard of his work at the Equal Justice Initiative, you would be amazed at the things he has achieved. Among other things, he has won cases for over 125 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row. Bryan Stevenson has made an uphill climb, his life’s work.
I believe he did mention at the dinner, that the book he wrote was being made into a movie. So I was really happy to hear that Just Mercy  was coming to cinemas in the UK at the beginning of 2020. We actually planned to take our Law and Race students to a screening, but industrial action coincided with COVID-related cinema closures… and that never happened. But I finally got to watch it. Even the trailer makes me feel weepy. Do watch it if you get a chance to do so. It is a powerful true story.
Before I begin the thematic review… fair warning… here be spoilers. Advance at your peril… if you have not yet watched the movie.
Just Mercy tells the story of Bryan Stevenson, from the point he decides to work on Death Row and set up the Equal Justice Initiative. Against this backdrop, the movie focuses mainly on his work in appealing Walter McMillan’s death sentence. Walter McMillan was arrested in 1987, charged with the murder of Ronda Morrison, an 18-year-old white woman who was shot in broad daylight at the Monroeville, Alabama dry-cleaning shop where she worked. McMillian was convicted after a trial that lasted only a day and a half. An overwhelmingly white jury sentenced him to life in prison, but the judge overrode the jury and condemned him to die.
The story is one of conspiracy, political machination, racism, legal gymnastics, civility-masking-cruelty and, dogged perseverance. From 1990 to 1993, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals turned down four appeals asking for Walter McMillan’s death sentence to be set aside. This movie is the story of the final appeal in 1993. In the bigger picture of time…1993 was yesterday.
Some of the Cast
Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson
Jamie Foxx as Walter McMillian
Brie Larson as Eva Ansley
Rafe Spall as Tommy Chapman
Tim Blake Nelson as Ralph Myers
O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Anthony Ray Hinton
I often reflect on how book-to-film adaptations have to choose what they focus on in their adaptation with great care. The focus chosen by the makers of Just Mercy unveils: the unneutral nature of law, what perseverance really requires, what it takes to do the right thing continuously, and the exceeding cost of entrenched systemic racial injustice.
On Law and Neutrality
One hears that the law is, or ought to be neutral. So I thought we should start our considerations here with some of the definitions of the word ‘neutral’.
not saying or doing anything that would encourage or help any of the groups involved in an argument or war
not aligned with or supporting any side or position in a controversy
not engaged on either side… specifically : not aligned with a political or ideological grouping
2. If someone speaks in a neutral voice or if the expression on their face is neutral, they do not show what they are thinking or feeling.
3. If you say that something is neutral, you mean that it does not have any effect on other things because it lacks any significant qualities of its own, or it is an equal balance of two or more different qualities, amounts, or ideas.
Neutrality, as perspectivelessness, which Kimberlé Crenshaw describes as a means of evaluating facts and applying law ‘in ways that neither reflect nor privilege any particular perspective or world view.’ Crenshaw argues that perspectivelessness ‘immunizes the law from serious criticism.’ She contends further that, ‘the appearance of perspectivelessness is simply the illusion by which the dominant perspective is made to appear neutral, ordinary, and beyond question.’
Crenshaw’s argument illuminates one of the misgivings I have always had in relation to the neutrality of law as a fundamental idea, that is, the concept of there being ‘two sides’ equal in power and might, rather than a complexity of entanglements and continuities that the law works within. Neutrality presumes everyone is being treated equally by the law. Neutrality creates a fiction that closes its eyes to the inequalities created and reproduced in society. Another limitation of course, is that while the practice and theorisation of law builds a lot on the concept of abstraction [conceptualising from often inchoate and disparate material, tangible and intangible stuff], the law, as we know it, did not fall from heaven. It did not arrive on earth fully formed. It did not spring complete from the forehead of Zeus. It was made by the powerful of society, for society’s purposes and is enforced by societal means. We are always secretly talking about power. We are always speaking the language of power. Locked within the law is a long history of use and abuse of power.
The law is also memory; the law also records a long-running conversation, a nation arguing with its conscience
Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance
In Just Mercy, the un-neutrality of the law is laid bare in the selection and selectiveness of human beings making the key decisions: decisions such as; who to charge, who to question, who not to question, what questions to ask, who to stop, who to search, which witnesses are considered credible, which jurors are considered objective. There is a whole pipeline of tiny snowdrops of seemingly minute decisions that lead to a terrible avalanche of racial injustice.
In 2016, a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice asked researchers at Harvard University to find out why 655 of every 100,000 Black people in Massachusetts were in prison. The study found that:
‘…the criminal justice system is unequal on every level. Cops in the state are more likely to stop Black drivers. Police are more likely to search or investigate Black residents. Law enforcement agents charge Black suspects with infractions that carry worse penalties. Prosecutors are less likely to offer Black suspects plea bargains or pre-trial intervention. Judges sentence Black defendants to longer terms in prison.’
When Walter McMillan was convicted of murder, but at no point – investigation, trial, conviction – are his friends and family questioned or asked to testify as to his whereabouts. Over 50 people [mostly Black] saw him miles away from where the murder occurred, at the time the murder occurred. But for the neutral law, they are not credible witnesses. Yet the entire case against hinges on the testimony of a career criminal. A White career criminal. We live in yesterday’s memories of law and order. And even if there were two sides to this, one is a mountain and the other is a speck of dust.
On Slow Death Row: Or the little foxes that spoil the vines, the little violences that slowly kill and the many Bryan Stevensons who will not and cannot stay the distance
I cannot imagine how Bryan Stevenson managed to survive this work. He set up the Equal Justice Initiative in 1989 as a very, very young lawyer. I remember being a young lawyer. Absolutely everything was intimidating. I cannot imagine choosing to do this sort of work at that point. I suspect there are other not-nice things that may have happened to him that neither the movie or the book cover. A few of things that are included: on his visit to death row he is ordered to strip to his underwear, even though lawyers are not required to do so; when he tries to set up the EJI initially, the first landlord refuses to let the office to him just because of the work he intends to do; there is a bomb threat at Eva’s house [Eva is Brie Larson’s character and she works with Stevenson at the EJI]; the police stop him and put a gun to his face [this was particularly traumatising to watch for me]; there is a lot genteel and patronising stonewalling; and in the final court scene McMillan’s friends and family are not let into the courtroom. How to continue fighting against a system determined to crush you? Because, even if there were two sides to this, one is a mountain and other is a speck of dust.
There is such a high level of powerful resistance to Stevenson’s work, that it is clear, it takes a special person to do what he has done. I suspect that he sees the world very differently from most of us. There is a line from the book that says, ‘The real question of capital punishment in this country is, not do they deserve to die, but do we deserve to kill?’ I think of this question often. It tells us that he wants to change the world. Because he wants us to change how we think.
There is another line from the movie, which illustrates how much he carries the weight of history with him:
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.
One is a mountain and other is a speck of dust.
Defining Allyship: A world of Tommy Chapmans or Eva Ansleys?
The contrast between these two characters struck me as quite significant. You could describe both of them as within that all-encompassing frame of ‘good people.’ Eva Ansley is a real person who has worked with Bryan Stevenson since the EJI was established and continues to work with him. She co-founded the Equal Justice Initiative with Stevenson and as at 2020 serves as its operations director. As portrayed in the film, she just gets stuck in. She sees injustice and she wants it to end. Simple. No placing herself at the centre of the story. No emotional, public and performative self-flagellation. She just does the work.
On the other hand, we have District Attorney William Thomas “Tommy” Chapman. Also an actual person. Chapman took office in 1990. Chapman continued to serve as the District Attorney of the 35th Judicial Circuit until 2012, when he stepped down after successfully winning four previous re-election campaigns. It is suggested that in reality he acted more reprehensibly than either the movie or book tells us, in resisting attempts to overturn McMillan’s death sentence.
On his thoughts on Stevenson, Tommy Chapman is quoted in Peter Earley’s book Circumstantial Evidence:
‘Stevenson didn’t know me or anything about me, and yet he comes in here and he has this attitude of “I’m a Harvard-educated lawyer and I’m going to come down here and tell these honkies how to do their job. … Well, I’m just as smart as that guy, even if I didn’t go to Harvard. And just because we don’t see things eye to eye doesn’t mean that I’m not a moral person. What right did he have to come lecture me about morals?’
I often say the opposite of justice is inaction, the opposite of love is indifference. A world of Tommy Chapmans leaves us with a world of inaction against injustice, indifference in the face of hate. I don’t want to world of such ‘good’ and moral people, who see racial discrimination and inequality as a disagreement… a difference of opinion.
“There is a moral obligation, I think, not to ally oneself with power against the powerless.” Chinua Achebe
On Racism as a Thief of Time: Or no happy endings in the racial, carceral, necropolitical state
The movie ends with Walter McMillan’s death sentence being overturned – he also works with Stevenson to fight for policy changes around the death penalty. A happy ending? The happy ending here is that Walter McMillan was not executed. But time was put to death for him and his family and his community. Time that can never be reclaimed. The time he spends in prison. The time his family spend without him. The time they spend fighting. Some will say that the ending shows that the justice system works. That the law works. But the law is not a thing that exists outside of power and society. It is the same law that puts him in prison and sentences him to death that sets him free. The difference is the people and perseverance behind the law. But there is time and tide that can never be reclaimed. Time that could have been spent doing other things. The film’s closing info-cards note that McMillan died in 2013, after suffering from early-onset dementia and “his years on death row weighed heavily on him till the end.”
The book goes into more detail on this:
Soon, Walter needed to be moved into the sort of facility that provided care for the elderly and infirm. Most places wouldn’t take him because he had been convicted of a felony. Even when we explained that he was wrongfully convicted and later proved innocent, we couldn’t get anyone to admit him… Walter died on September 11, 2013. He remained kind and charming until the very end, despite his increasing confusion from the advancing dementia. He lived with his sister Katie, but in the last two years of his life he couldn’t enjoy the outdoors or get around much without help. One morning he fell and fractured his hip. Doctors felt it was inadvisable to operate, so he was sent home with little hope of recovery.
When there is racism, there are no happy endings. So in the words of Bryan Stevenson, we need to talk about an injustice. And we need to talk about it now. Because even though the long moral arc of the universe bends towards justice, there are many injustices that are irreversible. For while the quality of mercy is not strained, mercy from the unmerciful does little to mitigate their continuing injustice. We need to talk about an injustice, because we need justice to be just. Always. We need to confront the fact that in our quest for justice, one side is a mountain and other is a speck of dust.