There are some movies that every Christian, or for that matter every moral person should see. This is definitely one of them. It tells the true story of Johnny Dee aka Walter Macmillian, who was wrongly accused and convicted of killing a young white girl in Monroeville Alabama. There is some serious irony in this as Monroeville is the town of Harper Lee who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, about a trial of a black man wrongly accused of a similar crime and defended by Atticus Finch. There’s even a museum in that town celebrating that novel and Harper Lee. Walter is played brilliantly by Jamie Foxx who says this is the role he had been preparing for all his life. In some ways the film explores the same territory as The Green Book of a couple of years ago, but this is a much more serious movie in the sense that it involves a man wrongly put on death row. We have discussed capital punishment before and the Innocence Project, as written about in Grisham’s novel An Innocent Man, and the story in this movie is about a similar entity called the Equal Justice Initiative, which through hard legal work has gotten 140 persons wrongly incarcerated out of jail. Kudos to Bryan Stevenson (played brilliantly by Michael B. Jordan) who is still at it, as is Eva Ansley, played quite nicely by Brie Larson. For more than 2 hours we are put through the emotional roller coaster of hope and despair, of ups and downs, holding our breath that by some miracle justice might finally be done.
Justice is when you get what you deserve. Mercy is when you are spared the bad outcome you actually deserve. And grace is when you get a blessing you’ve neither earned nor deserve. It is not an accident that this movie, near its end, has a line similar to that when Stevenson says everyone deserves some justice, some mercy, and even some grace. The scenes inside the prison are at times gut-wrenching and the bonding of the inmates poignant.
But perhaps more than anything else, this movie reveals clearly one of the real underlying causes of racism, and it is not just ignorance. If it were just ignorance people could be educated out of it, but in fact I’ve met any number of well-educated people who were straight up racists. As this movie makes crystal clear, it is all about fear which evolves into prejudice…. fear of the other. And fear makes people do all kinds of irrational things, not the least of which is accusing someone you are scared of, of committing a serious crime when they did not do it. Fear leads to false assumptions about the ‘other’—‘oh they look dangerous, oh they can’t be trusted to tell the truth’, and so on. So much of all this is the continued bad fruit of slavery in the old South and what that heinous institution did to African Americans. In an odd reversal the sins of the white fathers keeping getting revisited on the descendants not of their own children, but on the children and grandchildren of former slaves. And yes, poverty has much to do with who get’s justice in America, perhaps especially in some parts of the South, but racism also has much to do with it still.
(Spoiler alert about this final paragraph).
I wish I could tell you that when Walter finally was exonerated in them mid-1990s he went on to live a happy life the rest of his days, but in fact the crime committed against him by his accusers continued to haunt him, and he found the adjustment hard, and sadly he developed dementia and passed away in 2013. But the telling of his inspirational story, which is nonetheless a cautionary tale, will continue to reverberate for some time, thanks to this excellent movie.