Written by Caroline Scudder, Columnist
A couple weeks ago I saw the film “Just Mercy” with a discussion afterwards sponsored by the Cothran Center. I had not read the book but heard that it was a heartbreakingly raw story that depicted race, the justice system, and the power of community in an honest light. It quickly became clear that this narrative would invite some tears to the showing when Rolyn Rollins, the Cothran Center Program Coordinator, began to hand out a box of tissues for us to pass around the entire theater. Taking the initiative, I pulled out a minimum of 6 tissues in the case that I did cry or that anyone else needed extra tissues as a means of saving any dry sleeves out there – the tear wiping method I typically employ.
The sounds of sniffles and heavy breathing were abundant as the main character and author of this story, Bryan Stevenson, fought to prove the innocence of Walter McMillian. Set in the Deep South of rural Alabama, Stevenson was also fighting for racial equality in the surrounding area and for all those who still experienced racial discrimination. One of the first things he did to understand McMillian’s case was meet with his family to hear first-hand what had happened. Getting close to the family was an essential part of Stevenson’s work in finding evidence that proved McMillian innocent. In the early stages of his research, the family felt defeated and had little hope for the chance of nullifying Walter’s charge. While I have no interest in spoiling where the rest of the story goes, I would like to include a quote from the final scene of the film:
“Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.” – Bryan Stevenson, author and protagonist of Just Mercy
In the following discussion after the movie, we were asked what this final statement meant. Rather than the binary thinking between the rich and the privileged versus the poor and the oppressed, Stevenson argued that performing justice for those who have been downtrodden is the greatest form of wealth a person can contain. To do what is right, fair, and equal is a currency that humanity must uphold. Stevenson lives and breathes this principle in the film and does not limit his view of others to what they have done or been “convicted” for doing.
Conversely, he fights and believes that every individual – regardless of what they have done or how they have been labeled – deserves mercy. Through that guiding belief system, Stevenson exemplifies that everyone is deserving of this standard: the guilty, the innocent, the oppressed, the excluded, the incarcerated, the white supremist, the freedom fighters, the families, the strangers, and the humans. Everyone is worthy of a second chance, a third chance, and another one after that. Ultimately, the opposite of poverty is the compassion that is shown through forgiveness and the actions which emanate from that truth. So please, for the love of all that is good and decent, go see this film, read the book, and have a set of tissues or a good sleeve at the ready for the tears that are bound to accompany you through this story.