So yes this is a weird picture – they are the lights on the side walls of the movie theater where we saw Just Mercy on Friday afternoon. These lights, however, really spoke to me of the deeper message of the movie for me. The movie is an adaptation of the book by the same title, written by Bryan Stevenson, which tells the story of Mr Stevenson’s work with the Equal Justice Initiative to advocate on behalf of a man named Walter McMillian who was wrongly convicted and sentenced to execution in Alabama. Both the book and the movie are vital experiences to take in because they paint the picture that is the reality for far too many people of color – people who have experienced a system that is not only biased against them but also has actively sought to oppress and deny their rights.
As I watched the movie, I found myself also drawn to these lights on the wall throughout. I kept glancing over at the small amount of light radiating from them and it finally hit me this morning maybe why. The film was depicting the story of men (in the case of the film, all depicted on death row were men but the Equal Justice Initiative has also secured the release of many women who were falsely convicted and sentenced to die) who were in a place of darkness and hopelessness because of how their trials went down and in how their appeals also were handled. One quote from both the book and the film captures this well…”We have a system of justice that in too many places treats you better if you are rich and guilty then if you are poor and innocent.”
The stories of the men in this film mirror those of so many others who are in the exact same situation – be it convicted and put on death row or simply serving years in prison. One quote from the film really stood out to me…
The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.
If this is the measure not just for our character but for us as a country, we’re not doing so well. We’re not doing much looking like Jesus because the stories of Jesus we have in the Gospels show a very different treatment from him of the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned. We need to hear and tell and live more stories like this from Just Mercy to be that which brings these realities to light and to do what each of us is able (and each of us is able to do more than we think).
One scene in the movie was particularly powerful for me – after one appeal was denied (even with an incredible amount of proof behind it), Mr McMillian was speaking to Mr Stevenson about his disappointment and hurt and anger said something that was powerful. Simply, “You gave me back my truth.” There are a lot of people whose truth needs to be given back to them and it isn’t just people in prison. It is anyone against whom we make a snap judgment because of what they look like, how they dress, how their hair is, how they speak. I do it. You do it. We all do it. But there is truth that we can find in one another if we are just even in relationship with one another and we find that there is something far deeper and something beautifully human in each.