The quiet power of Just Mercy…..

It’s midweek, I’m front row at the cinema in London’s Leicester Square, flanked by an informal panel of amateur film critics, both preoccupied by crime- one is an academic, the other a defence lawyer. We’re watching Just Mercy, the new legal film based on the memoir of civil rights activist lawyer Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B Jordan) who fights dubious convictions for prisoners on death row. It charts the ups and downs as he takes on their cases and gives them a voice in a system where they otherwise wouldn’t have one.

The case of woodworker Walter Mcmillian (Jamie Foxx) who was wrongly imprisoned in the Southern state of Alabama for the murder of a white teenage girl forms the backbone of the film. A murder, you soon realise, which has raised the community temperature. The rich white, suburban-living residents need to know someone is paying the price for the killing. Revenge and punishment assumed to be a grieving community’s right – a conviction, any conviction will do.

It’s easy as a media professional and, ex-journalist working to raise the profile of criminal justice reform to squirrel away movies and TV box-sets about crime and punishment in the bottom drawer, consigned to a rainy day. Easy to believe real world press headlines are what matters, what makes people care. Increasingly, in a multi-media world that approach needs a re-set. Hearts and minds matter too. Fiction, faction (Just Mercy runs pretty true to the real-life lawyer’s book of the same name) and dramas reach parts others never do. Lawyers and justice organisations I work with will recognise my regular refrain, we have to break out of our echo chamber, paint a picture for non-lawyers, non-experts. Show them in whatever way speaks to them most that the rule of law, equality before the law, access to justice are tenets of our society we should hold dear, it starts with the emotions.

Anyone who’s seen Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men or Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch knows what I mean – a bold story on the silver screen can provoke the passion of a lifetime. In fact, I can think of at least a handful of defence lawyers for whom To Kill a Mockingbird fuelled their decision to choose defence over more lucrative legal careers on the commercial or corporate side.

Back to the front row, and Hannah and Kerry, who I’m using as my informal expert panel about Just Mercy. For a deeper understanding of what the film says about justice in the US and here in Britain, Dr Hannah Quirk of Kings College London and senior defence lawyer, Kerry Hudson have allowed themselves to be enlisted. Hannah had heard about the film, Kerry hadn’t. A reflection, perhaps of its limited release and mixed reviews. Mark Kermode in the Guardian and BBC, praises it as powerfully ‘understated’ and ‘unshouty’. The Telegraph, on the other hand, dubbed it ‘lethargic’. Radio 1 Xtra used the opportunity to interview the real-life attorney Bryan Stevenson and explore the reality of prisons here with a chat with rising star and ex-prisoner voice and poet Lady Unchained.

The idealistic, Harvard educated attorney set up the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama when he realised a ‘broken’ US system is stacked against the poor and black, feeling driven to fix it. Hannah, on my right, is a miscarriages of justice specialist who has spent six months in New Orleans working on the Innocence Project investigating similar questionable convictions. Kerry on my left, has spent 12 years at the coalface of criminal defence, slogging round police stations, courts and prisons representing often vulnerable defendants accused of serious crimes (conspiracies, murder, drugs and sexual offences). As well as the day-job Kerry, is current leader of London’s criminal defence practitioners’ group (London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association) involved in ongoing high level discussions about the future of legal aid. A busman’s holiday?

This was one lawyer’s journey of seeking justice –it reminds us all why we do it,’ said Kerry Hudson. ‘It shows right from the start that justice needs to be done and needs to be seen to be done. It showed the emotional side of things and challenged the public perception of how people get involved in the criminal justice system, there can be mistakes.’ Very real mistakes Kerry is quick to point out, such as prosecutors failing to reveal unused evidence or CCTV footage going missing. And yes, being a professional lawyer Kerry couldn’t help noticing some of the legal detail in the film was a just a little sketchy. I didn’t go there! Though it needs to be said on a wider scale, she observed one gap in the storyline. Money and funding   didn’t get a mention- and yet, in the absence of legal aid or the equivalent routine provision of defence in the US, it’s no secret money helps buy justice.

In his quest for justice for the poor and dubiously imprisoned Bryan Stevenson, ( his mantra, ‘Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done’) travels hundreds of miles to visit Walter’s family and visits scores of prisoners on death row who confide in him, as much as a priest figure as a lawyer (the undertone of religion never seems far away in the US system).

There are some stand-out scenes. Early on we see the civil rights attorney strip-searched by a sadistic prison officer who smirks, as he humiliates him.  Hannah concluded, ‘it’s evocative of small town racism, showing the casual abuse of power.’  Apparently, lawyers on legal visits to prisons here are routinely searched. Though not strip-searched, Kerry is familiar with her bra underwiring being checked before visiting clients in certain prisons. I’ve since heard that female visitors to US prisons are also regularly made to prove they are wearing a bra – less for a drug check, more to ensure they don’t decide to be indiscreet to inmates. The things you learn.

Casual racism, distasteful power play is a constant thread in Just Mercy. Watch for Michael B Jordan’s subtle facial expression of discomfort moving into quiet rage. A rage which, you sense, drives him to scrutinise every file and piece of evidence.

For me, another heart- in-mouth moment comes as Stevenson and his charity co-worker receive bomb threats at their make-do HQ in her family home, the mom’s two young children running around. No wonder the lawyer’s mother had warned against his work. It’s easy to feel the inadequacy of the bystander. Would I, could I be so brave, take the risk?  Hannah is left questioning herself, ‘It made me feel like I should do more, it galvanised me.’

Bryan Stevenson’s personal commitment and bravery shines through– alongside a reluctant acceptance that his pursuit of justice and mercy involves risking personal safety, at times dignity.

What also really hit home for me – and Hannah- was Bryan Stevenson’s capacity to absorb personal responsibility.  A bad day at the office for him means someone gets killed.  There is one gruesome, but subtle, scene where Stevenson decides it’s his reluctant duty to sit in the viewing panel to watch a man shocked to death in the electric chair.

On the best of days a life is spared. A friend, an immigration barrister, later told me she’d turned down opportunities to work with death row prisoners, daunted by the weight of the responsibility. Who can blame her?

The power and influence of the individual is reinforced in key twists in Walter McMillian’s legal case to appeal his innocence. There’s a moment in the appeal courtroom which I confess to misreading. On seeing a tortured prosecution witness (a burns victim subjected to a particularly cruel form of abuse) reveals the extent of his untrue evidence. It seems a done deal, a cast iron case for overturning the original conviction. You’d think? Or may be not.

No spoiler alert needed here, suffice it to say, I was wrong. The appeal judge had other ideas. Hannah Quirk’s answer to my naiive, ‘How can this be?’ was ‘The judge is up for election perhaps.’ The judge (Rafe Spall) she speculates was politically motivated, the murder of the teenage white girl too emotive locally to overturn. Judges here come in for criticism – too male, pale and stale, a judiciary in need of a revamp. Perhaps we should be grateful personal politics aren’t allowed to play such a naked part in court outcomes as may be true over the pond.

Nevertheless, redemption comes in many forms.  Not just for our main guy Walter McMillian, but also for the District Attorney who eventually does the right thing. The most understated but possibly powerful redemption comes for the prison officer (he of the demeaning strip-search scene). After hearing the appeal court evidence he quietly, in an unshowy way reviews his racist assumptions. Death row is brutal, yet humanity exists in unexpected places, like the moment when fellow inmates strike up a tune on their cell bars to let a dying fellow prisoner know he’s not alone in his final moments.

Amusingly, as myself and my two amateur film critics were leaving the cinema, mid-flow discussing the realities of prison searches, a guy wondering past chipped in ‘Ah yeah, they do that in Thameside too.’

Art can only ever imitate life – but it can also raise passions – stimulate debate and bring about change. Without hammering Just Mercy home, it offers a mirror to reflect on our cultural expectations and values here as well as in the States. Anger and revenge emerging as strangers to justice, whilst fair representation, hope and redemption emerge as friends. For those of us working for criminal justice reform it reminds us we need to remain open to different ways of harnessing the power of art for good.