Martin Luther King’s birthday is the perfect opportunity to bring your teenagers along to see the newly released film Just Mercy. The movie, based on attorney Bryan Stevenson’s memoir of the same name, is an account of Stevenson’s first years in Montgomery, Alabama as the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.
Stevenson, an African American Harvard Law School graduate, moved to Alabama after completing a summer internship that brought him face-to-face with the grim realities of death row in America. He won a federal grant to open the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama. From the website: “The Equal Justice Initiative is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”
The movie focuses primarily on Stevenson’s fight to win acquittal for Walter McMillan, a man accused of murdering an eighteen-year-old white woman at a dry cleaners in rural Alabama. From the start, it is clear that McMillan is as innocent as he claims to be; there is no way he could – or would – have committed the crime. He is on death row on the strength of a coerced testimony from another inmate who is white. Stevenson exposes blatant racism in his quest to exonerate McMillan, and it is this racism and injustice that Stevenson has spent over thirty years fighting, sometimes all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
Raised in church playing the piano for the choir, Stevenson does the work he does because he was taught to follow the God of the Bible. In his memoir he shares the story of a night he almost quit the work, the night when an inmate named Jimmy Dill is executed in spite of all Stevenson’s efforts. He writes:
It took me awhile to sort it out, but I realized something sitting there while Jimmy Dill was being killed at Holman prison. After working for more than twenty-five years, I understood that I don’t do what I do because it’s required or necessary or important. I don’t do it because I have no choice. I do it because I am broken, too. My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness in others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness.
In the quiet of his car, driving away from the prison that night, Stevenson recalls and for the first time understands the verse his preacher would speak over the congregation where he played piano in college: “Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice” (Psalm 51:8).
As people of faith, we would do well to see this movie and read this book. It is part of our calling as citizens of God’s Kingdom to engage with people who are victims of injustice and to make sure young people do as well. In the words of Bryan Stevenson:
I’m a product of a community where people were marginalized, poor, excluded. We had to learn to believe things we hadn’t seen, and my faith reinforced that. People don’t like when they are forced to confront things that aren’t pleasant, that are unhappy. But we have to do that. And I actually think people of faith have a critical role at that. We understand that if we want to get to a better place, if we want redemption, if we want restoration, that there has to be confession, there has to be repentance. We cannot be afraid to acknowledge wrongdoing, mistakes we’ve made—we understand that personally. We seem to understand it in our places of worship, but we don’t seem to see much evidence of that in the political and the cultural social spaces. And I just think that has to change.
For further reading, please see:
Bryan Stevenson Wants to Liberate People From the Lie that Their Life Doesn’t Matter, Christianity Today.
“‘Slavery Doesn’t End, It Just Evolves:’ Lawyer Portrayed In ‘Just Mercy’ Wants Film to Inspire Change” – includes an interview with Stevenson about the movie.
New York Times Book Review: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, and movie review: “Just Mercy Review: Echoes of Jim Crow on Alabama’s Death Row.”
Oscar Ignored These 2019 Films. Christians Shouldn’t by Brett McCracken, TGC.
To learn more about the people Stevenson has helped, read The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life, Freedom, and Justice by Anthony Ray Hinton. Hinton lived in death row for thirty years before he was exonerated of murder. Hinton is a man of faith raised by a mother who never stopped praying for his release. Both this book and Just Mercy would make excellent reading for teenagers.
Head over to the Youth Ministry side of the blog today for some helpful questions to get the conversation going with your kids after you’ve seen the movie.