A Juneteenth Must Watch
Streaming Everywhere | 2019 | PG-13 | 2h 16m
Genre: Biopic/Drama and Black History Why We Watched: I originally watched this in theatres sure that it would be nominated for an Academy Award. The film received a standing ovation at its close, with not a dry eye in the house. When it was released across all platforms for free by Universal in response to the recent Black Lives Matter protests across the country, I knew it was worth a second screening.
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Bryan Stevenson is a Harvard-educated attorney who has spent his life advocating for fair trials for the wrongfully convicted. In 1989, at just twenty-nine years old, the young Black man moved to Montgomery, Alabama, and founded the Equal Justice Initiative—an organization committed to ending mass incarceration and challenging racial injustice. Since then, the EJI has secured relief, release, or reduced sentences for over 140 condemned people on death row. Just Mercy is the film adaptation of Stevenson's memoir and tells the founding story of the EJI. Powerfully helmed by Michael B. Jordan, the film follows the young Civil Rights attorney as he represents Walter McMillian (a vulnerable Jamie Foxx), an Alabama man who was sentenced to die for a murder he didn't commit. The white sheriff, district attorney, and community members see Stevenson as a threat to their post–Jim Crow county. McMillian—or Johnny D as his family knows him—believes that Stevenson is idealistic and naïve for thinking he can change anything. This is where the film's complexity resonates with our current moment. The anger Stevenson encounters from the white sheriff and DA, the legalized murder of Black men—this film was set forty years ago and it feels like today. As one reviewer put it, "Stevenson isn’t just challenging a single conviction, but also the deep legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. Like many of the lynching victims of the past, Johnny D threatened racial hierarchies, both because he was economically independent (owning a successful pulpwood business) and because of an affair he had with a white woman." I will be very honest with you: This film features a very tough scene, during which an innocent man is executed. As I watched in the theater, my own muffled sobs were met by many others'. But just because something is hard to watch doesn't mean it's not worth watching. As the past few weeks have shown us, it's our job as a country to grapple with the racism that pervades our society. As the annual recognition of the end of slavery, Juneteenth should be a celebration. Given the recent public murders of Black people in our country, though, that celebration is coupled with a spirit of grief and anger. Shortly after the murder of George Floyd, Universal released Just Mercy to stream for free across all platforms. "We believe in the power of the story," the production company said. "[This film] is one resource we can humbly offer to those who are interested in learning more about the systemic racism that plagues our society." Stay strong, friends. Keep up the fight for justice. Liz