Friday, August 28, 2020

A Review of the Documentary 'True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality'

This powerful documentary shows how "Stevenson and his colleagues have been able to free and overturn the wrongful convictions of about one hundred and fifty death row and other socially-marginalized inmates..." 

"One has a lively sense of the Gospel at work in his endeavors on behalf of the outcast neighbor..."



At the beginning of 2020 - in the pre-pandemic era! - I wrote and posted a film review based on the strong impression that the film 'Just Mercy' made on both Presvytera Deborah and me. The film was a  cinematic dramatization of an actual case that occurred in Alabama in 1987. In this case, which took years to bring to a just conclusion ("just mercy"), the Harvard-trained African American lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, was able to help free Walter McMillan, an African American man who was wrongfully convicted of murdering a young white woman, and who spent many years on death row before his exoneration and release in 1993. The deep sense of satisfaction the film created for the viewer when the reversal of a wrongful conviction and thus the victory of justice was achieved, left an indelible impression. Here is a link to that review if anyone would be interested in reading it.


I bring this up eight months later because Presvytera Deborah and I recently watched the powerful documentary, 'True Justice: Bryan Stevenson's Fight For Equality'. Narrated by the celebrated attorney, and covering his long career fighting against a broken system in order to provide legal counsel to death-row inmates in order that they too may be granted the justice that they failed to receive earlier in their lives, this documentary also left an indelible impression. It was stated that Stevenson and his colleagues have been able to free and overturn the wrongful convictions of about one hundred and fifty such death row and other socially-marginalized inmates over the years. So, this current reflection and commentary is something of a "follow up" on the film, as the documentary is an even more direct presentation of what Bryan Stevenson has been able to achieve; while his narrative is in many ways a piercing indictment of the racism that has plagued the United States now for centuries. This legacy cannot be ignored if you want to understand the present-day tensions that continue to trouble our society. If you take the time to watch this documentary, you will come to what may be the uncomfortable conclusion that his argument is essentially unassailable. Of this I am certain – especially for a Christian conscience, I would add.   

This indictment travels all the way to the Supreme Court, because for many years this highest judicial branch of  the United States supplied legal justification and credence to a two-tiered society that maintained the morally-bankrupt ideologies of white supremacy and black inferiority. This is one of the reasons that leads Stevenson to say: "The North won the (Civil) war, but the South won the narrative." As the documentary unfolds, it continually comes back to a shot of the Supreme Court building and the motto etched in stone high above the entrance: "Equal Justice Under the Law." The striking and ironic juxtaposition of the facts presented in the documentary with the hollow ring of these words in the light of those facts has its effect upon the viewer. Equal justice under the law did not exist for millions of black Americans who were treated as undeserving of that very justice even though a bloody Civil War was fought to win for them both freedom and justice. This gloomy picture finds relief and light as Stevenson also narrates the more recent cases (beginning with Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954) that begins to tilt the scales of justice in a more equitable direction. Brian Stevenson is directly responsible — as he argued the cases — for five pivotal Supreme Court decisions that redress the legal and moral failings of the Supreme Court in the past. The verdict is in: the Supreme Court failed to uphold the proposition of the Constitution that "all men are created equal" in many decisions from the era of Jim Crow segregation.


There is about a ten-fifteen minute segment in "True Justice" in which Bryan Stevenson offers a deeply-troubling historical overview of the legacy of lynching that plagued the black community of the South for decades. There are endless photographs of distorted bodies hanging from trees (some victims were burnt alive) surrounded by huge crowds of onlookers who are thus morally culpable for these atrocities. There were probably around five thousand such lynching from 1890-1950 in the South. And the black community had no recourse to justice, because it was the legal authorities who were often direct participants in these crimes. (There was a fluidity of movement between the KKK and the legal authorities wherein it is difficult to distinguish between the two). This was nothing short of home-grown terrorism. This led to the great migration of black people to the major urban centers of the North in the twentieth century - a desperate desire to escape from this intimidation and domestic terrorism. This segment is narrated with a certain sobriety and lack of sensationalism, and perhaps that makes it all the more chilling. The devastation that this lynching brought to the black community was horrific and can bring tears to your eyes. But the open brutality, callousness, and moral degradation so evident in the white participants, combined with the racism that was rampant within a seemingly large segment of the white community, can either leave the viewer enraged or chilled to the core of one's being. There were not only white men present at these barbarous crimes, but also women and smiling children standing underneath a hanging corpse. Think for the moment of the moral corruption of such children. And this is then perpetuated for generations. Watching this I thought that this is not only about ignorance and prejudice, but something altogether "demonic" at work. Can human beings really be this evil? And these very people may have went to church on Sunday morning with an untroubled conscience!

In another segment, Stevenson makes a good case for his claim that at a certain point in time, when an uninvited notoriety was finally surrounding the widespread lynching, that the "outdoor lynching" became the "indoor lynching" of the courtroom. White judges, white prosecuting attorneys, white court-appointed attorneys, white law enforcement officers and all-white juries created an atmosphere for the black defendant that did not leave much room at all for justice to be served. Harper Lee's wonderful novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, gave us a fictional, yet devastatingly realistic recreation, of this harsh environment. Today is the anniversary (1955) of the brutal murder of Emmett Till, the young teenager who was tortured and mutilated beyond recognition for the "crime" of disrespecting a white woman. The film of his trial shows the defendants in the front row smirking and laughing throughout the charade being enacted in the courtroom. When the segregated black community returned to the courtroom after lunch, the local sheriff greeted them with these words: "Hello, n-----s!" To this day, no one was ever found guilty of this horrific crime. Justice was not served. 

Yet, Bryan Stevenson seems to be a hopeful person, and this is conveyed in his over-arching theme that embraces this shameful history into a higher and promising narrative. He is a modest man for all of his really extraordinary accomplishments. His outward demeanor is calm and collected, a character trait that is probably essential when arguing cases often enough to an either indifferent, skeptical or hostile (all-white) audience. Yet, the "fire within" is clearly right below the surface and just as evident. It is clear that his Christian formation is an integral part of his professional career. He was brought up in an AMA church [African Methodist Episcopal Church] in Delaware and he returns to this church setting a couple of times during the documentary. His grandmother was a woman of strong moral fiber, and he includes her in his narrative. His language also reveals his Christian upbringing - he spoke of mercy and grace before a senate committee, a scene included in the film as a kind of summation of his legal work on behalf of others. And at the end of the documentary, when speaking to a gathering of folks at a newly-constructed memorial center that keeps alive the memory of the victims of racial injustice, he offers a prayer before the gathered assembly. Although so difficult for anyone to perceive it, it is Christ who stands with these victims as the lover of the poor, the dispossessed, the marginalized and the outcasts.


This memorial  center is deeply impressive. Established in 2018 in Montgomery, Alabama, it was initially called The National Lynching Memorial, but has been renamed as The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. To my embarrassment, I have only recently become aware of this new structure and its purpose. Through careful and painstaking research the names of thousands of the victims of lynching have been recovered, and soil from the actual sites of these crimes has been gathered in large glass bottles and stored in row after row on wooden shelves that seem to reach to the ceiling. There are also stone slabs that have the name of the counties where this lynching occurred. Every county is able to retrieve the stone slab with its name as a memorial to the victims if it so chooses. It is an impressive sight and the message seems to be: We will not forget. For to forget the past is a betrayal to the memory of these innocent people whose "crime" was to be born with dark skin. 



He also follows the camera as it sweeps through the South, focusing on one romanticized and mythologized  monument after another of Civil War generals, Confederate statesmen, and other figures of that bygone era. Let’s just say that this glorification of the past leaves an uneasy feeling after the ravages of slavery, a failed Reconstruction Era, Jim Crow laws of segregation and the lynchings discussed above are reviewed in the cool light of historical recovery and analysis. 


I would like to share an anecdote with which Bryan Stevenson begins his documentary. As a young boy, he and his sister were given the present of going to the then newly-constructed Disney World. This must have been in the mid-60s. Either there or on the road they stopped at a hotel that had a large swimming pool. In their excitement they changed their clothes and raced to the pool and jumped in. Immediately, all of the other (white) children were frantically taken out of the pool as if an emergency situation had occurred. Finally, there was one last boy jerked out of the pool by an adult man. In his confusion, the young Bryan Stevenson asked the man just what was the problem. The man looked at him and said: You, n-----, you are the problem."  It was as if the black skin of those innocent children had somehow made the water in that pool toxic by mere contact. When he told his mother what had happened, she told him to not be afraid and to go back into the pool. He did so obediently, but found himself in a corner of the pool crying. Obviously, this memory has stayed with him throughout his life. But Stevenson then wonders aloud with the question: "Do any of those white children possibly remember that day in the swimming pool?" And memory remains a key theme that runs through the entire documentary. 


Memory, reconciliation and grace are the key themes that Bryan Stevenson leaves us with in the end, again attesting to the Christian inspiration that impels him forward in his pursuit of “true justice.” Another sub-theme of the documentary is the case of Anthony Roy Hinton, another wrongfully-convicted African American who served time together with Walter McMillian on Alabama’s death row. (He is also portrayed in the film version, 'Just Mercy'.) Bryan Stevenson eventually took up his case and appealed his wrongful conviction. After nearly thirty years in prison, Anthony Roy Hinton was released in 2015. The footage of him walking out of prison and into the light of day to be embraced by family members is deeply moving, to say the least. Mr. Hinton is determined to forgive everything that was done to him. He will not allow bitterness and rage to “enslave” him yet again. But the point is made that not one representative of the State of Alabama – not a judge, prosecuting attorney, law enforcement official, no one – ever said as much as “we are sorry.” Stevenson’s commentary on this was to state that those in power think it a sign of weakness to ever apologize. He further comments that a lengthy marriage can only be a fruitful one if mutual forgiveness is practiced among the spouses. To simply say "I am sorry" is a sign of a strong, not a weak character. After spending thirty years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Mr. Hinton deserved that apology.


This leads Stevenson to argue that true reconciliation between white and black people  can only be meaningful when full recognition of the darker aspects of this past are acknowledged as criminal and immoral. He points to the painful act of reconciliation that occurred in South Africa after the dismantling of apartheid. Also to Germany’s public recognition of the horrors and crimes of the Holocaust. Such humility is a strength that heals – not a sign of weakness. And again, the Christian dimension of reconciliation, grace and truth becomes all too apparent within such a narrative. He raises the issue of the Supreme Court. Would it be too much to hear an apology from the highest court of the land one day so as to acknowledge what terrible consequences their rulings from of old had on the black community for decades? What an effect on the healing process such an apology would have!


Bryan Stevenson embodies heroism and courage, combined with humility and modesty. He has accomplished great things in the name of “peace and justice.” One has a lively sense of the Gospel at work in his endeavors on behalf of the outcast neighbor. He is leading a life worth living. His legacy will remain as surely as the tarnished legacies of the unjust perpetrators of these heinous crimes will continue to fade into oblivion. Perhaps he has afforded us a glimpse of a contemporary saint?


The documentary 'True Justice' can be found on HBO through amazon prime. It has also been made available to view for free on YouTube by the producers (HBO Documentary Films and Kunhardt Film Foundation). As with the film, 'Just Mercy', it is available for rental and purchase through AppleTV and other online outlets, and is out on DVD. It is about two hours in length. Highly recommended!