Movie Review: Just Mercy (2019)


Title: Just Mercy
Release Date: December 25, 2019
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Production Company: Endeavor Content | One Community | Participant Media
Macro Media | Gil Netter Productions | Outlier Society
Summary/Review:

This movie flew under radar when it was released last Christmas, but it was available for free on streaming networks in June, so I thought I’d check it out.  The movie is based on the true story of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) and adapted from his book of the same name.  Stevenson is a Harvard-trained lawyer and as an idealistic young man we see him move to Alabama to begin the Equal Justice Initiative. With the support of local activist Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) he works to represent poor prisoners, including death row inmates, get proper legal representation.

The main plot of the movie relates to the case of Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of white teenage girl  in Monroeville (a town the is shown to be proud of  its connection with Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird). Stevenson sees that Johnny D. was convicted primarily on the testimony of another prisoner, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), who received a lighter sentence in exchange, and that witnesses who saw Johnny D at the time of the crime (including a cop) were not called at all.

I expect it is no spoiler to note that Stevenson will get Johnny D.’s conviction overturned, but the procedures and indiginities he has to go through still create a lot of tension. The early 1990s were a time when “tough on crime” was at its post-Jim Crow era peak, so its amazing that Stevenson is able to succeed (compare this movie with When They See Us, the story of the Central Park Five case happening around the same time). There is also a subplot involving another death row inmate, Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), a Vietnam veteran whose mental health was shattered by PTSD and is convicted for planting a bomb that unintentionally kills someone. Some of the most harrowing scenes in the film relate to Richardson’s case.

The movie falls back on some of the cliches of civil rights themed biopics, but it does stand a notch above them.  Jordan and Foxx are absolutely spectacular in acting their roles, and they are a joy to watch.  The movie also foregrounds the Black characters, so it avoids Hollywood’s predilection for “white savior” narratives.  If you haven’t seen this movie, check it out while it’s still free (although it would also be worth paying for).

Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending January 12th


On the Media :: Africatown

Survivors of The Clotilde, the last ship to carry Africans kidnapped into slavery in the United States, created a community outside Mobile, Alabama after the Civil War (covered in the recently published Zora Neale Hurston book Barracoon). The community has been devastated by environmental racism but survivors still hope to preserve its history.

99% Invisible :: Mini Stories: Volume 6

Have you ever watched a tv show or movie set in New York with a scene set in an alley? Did you know that New York City actually only has a handful of alleys?  Do you realize that Hollywood’s obsession with New York stories having scenes in alleys means that the same alley is used again and again? This story and the history of karaoke machines, Santa Fe’s burning Zozobra tradition, an American community only accessible from Canada, and Detroit’s railroad station are told in this podcast.


Running tally of Podcast of the Week appearances:

Book Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee


Author: Harper Lee
TitleGo Set a Watchman
Publication Info: New York, NY : Harper, An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, [2015]
Books By the Same Author: To Kill A Mockingbird
Summary/Review:

This book is controversial for two reasons.  First, it’s questionable whether Lee ever wanted it published and possible she was exploited in her infirmity and old age.  Second, it presents Atticus Finch, one of the noble heroes of American literature, as an unrepentant racist.

Of course, this Atticus is not the same Atticus as in To Kill A Mockingbird, as Go Set A Watchman is not a sequel but an early draft of that novel that was heavily re-written and edited.  Still this Atticus is a valuable character for a couple of reasons.  First, it shows that white people who may have been considered equitable when Jim Crow was firmly in place became reactionary once the Civil Rights Movement started, and found ways to justify it to themselves.  Second, it seems like each book has the Atticus that the readers of its time need.  In the 1960s, the Atticus who was a model of a white person advocating for equality and justice.  In the “colorblind”  2000s, we have white people who admire Atticus Finch but with no self-awareness will say things like “I’m not racist but…” or “all lives matter.”  A major plot point is that Atticus thinks Jean Louise needs to stop looking up to him for the answers and make up her own mind and that’s probably a good lesson for the reader as well.

The novel starts with Jean Louise (aka Scout) Finch returning to visit Maycomb, Alabama from New York.  There are some humorous bits as the unrepentant tomboy Jean Louise ponders just how much she doesn’t fit in to the community she fled.  There are also interesting and humorous flashbacks to her younger days (which an editor considered the best parts of the book, thus inspiring Lee to rewrite the book from the perspective of Scout as a child).

Then Jean Louise discovers that Atticus and her fiance Hank are attending the local Citizens Council meeting and she is shocked and disillusioned. Frankly, at this point the novel goes south as Jean Louise engages in unnatural conversations with several characters each a didactic representation of a Segregationist or States Rights point of view, while Jean Louise represents the Northern Liberal perspective (and frankly, Jean Louise is very weak as a proponent of equality and integration, although she may have seemed more radical in the 1950s).

This book is good for a couple of things.  For one, it helps understand the writing process, giving a peek at an early draft of a great novel.  Second, it’s a snapshot of opinions of white Southerners on racial issues in the late 1950s.  Sadly, what it is not is a good or well-written novel.

Favorite Passages:

She was a person who, when confronted with an easy way out, always took the hard way.


It had never fully occurred to Jean Louise that she was a girl: her life had been one of reckless, pummeling activity; fighting, football, climbing, keeping up with Jem, and besting anyone her own age in any contest requiring physical prowess. When she was calm enough to listen, she considered that a cruel practical joke had been played upon her: she must now go into a world of femininity, a world she despised, could not comprehend nor defend herself against, a world that did not want her.


There was a time, long ago, when the only peaceful moments of her existence were those from the time she opened her eyes in the morning until she attained full consciousness, a matter of seconds until when finally roused she entered the day’s wakeful nightmare


You are fascinated with yourself. You will say anything that occurs to you, but what I can’t understand are the things that do occur to you. I should like to take your head apart, put a fact in it, and watch it go its way through the runnels of your brain until it comes out of your mouth. We were both born here, we went to the same schools, we were taught the same things. I wonder what you saw and heard.


Blind, that’s what I am. I never opened my eyes. I never thought to look into people’s hearts, I looked only in their faces. Stone blind . . . Mr. Stone. Mr. Stone set a watchman in church yesterday. He should have provided me with one. I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour. I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference. I need a watchman to go forth and proclaim to them all that twenty-six years is too long to play a joke on anybody, no matter how funny it is.


I’ll come down to you. I believed in you. I looked up to you, Atticus, like I never looked up to anybody in my life and never will again. If you had only given me some hint, if you had only broken your word with me a couple of times, if you had been bad-tempered or impatient with me—if you had been a lesser man, maybe I could have taken what I saw you doing. If once or twice you’d let me catch you doing something vile, then I would have understood yesterday. Then I’d have said that’s just His Way, that’s My Old Man, because I’d have been prepared for it somewhere along the line.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Selma (2014)


TitleSelma
Release Date: 2014
Director: Ava DuVernay
Production Co: Cloud Eight Films, Celador Films, Harpo Films, Pathé, Plan B Entertainment
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: Biography | Drama | History
Rating: ****

The story of the march from Selma to Montgomery to fight for voting rights for black Americans is dramatized in this excellent biographical film.  The film focuses on Martin Luther King, Jr. after he and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) are invited to Selma, AL to help with their campaign to register black voters.  In addition to the conflict with violent police and racist whites, the film captures the tensions between the SCLC and leaders of other groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), tensions within the SCLC leadership, tensions between King and President Lyndon Johnson, and tensions within King’s family.  The brilliant acting in this film draws out how all these competing tensions affected the historic people and their motivations and desires.  I was also impressed with the directing of the film, particularly in the unusual way the camera conversations among individuals.  There has been criticism of this film for not being historically accurate, but while not being the documentary truth of the period of time it depicts, I think it compresses real historical truths for dramatic effect.  For example, while Johnson may not have been has nakedly antagonistic to King’s plans in 1965, it is true that the President had conflicting goals and did not wish to move forward as swiftly as the Movement.  I hope people will go and see this film which is both a work of art and an introduction to an important event in American history.  And once you’ve seen Selma, check out the documentary Eyes on the Prize and the many excellent books about the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

Song of the Week: “Call Me” by St. Paul and the Broken Bones


“Call Me” is a classic soul tune in the Bobby Bland style by a combo out of the capital of Minnesota Birmingham, Alabama (perhaps they’re fans of the Apostle to the Gentiles).  Led by crooner Paul Janeway, St. Paul & The Broken Bones released their first album Half the City in February.

What are you listening to this week?  Let me know in the comments!