Challenging the status quo – and winning

  • Keeping the faith: a poignant scene in Just Mercy, featuring Michael B. Jordan, left, and Jamie Foxx
  • Good experience: Saltus and Impact Academy at last week’s screening

As a follow-up to the youth session on Transformational Leadership held on Martin Luther King Day, the Bermuda Climate Action Network and Imagine Bermuda collaborated with Speciality Cinema in hosting a free screening of the movie Just Mercy for senior school students.

This film, rated A+ by CinemaScore, captures some of the heroic campaigns of the Equal Justice Initiative led by Bryan Stevenson, whom Desmond Tutu calls “America’s Nelson Mandela”. This selfless lawyer exemplifies courageous leadership, promoting the transformation of the injustices of America’s legal system.

More than 60 students from The Berkeley Institute and CedarBridge Academy enjoyed a screening last Wednesday, and 30-plus from Impact Academy and Saltus Grammar School benefited the next day.

The latter group was joined by a number of community leaders, which included Michael Charles, of the Bermuda Union of Teachers; the Right Reverend Nicholas Dill, Anglican Bishop of Bermuda; Nick Hutchings, of the Bermuda Environmental and Sustainability Taskforce; Anne Hyde, of Keep Bermuda Beautiful; Branwen Smith-King, the new secretary-general of the Bermuda Olympic Association; Saleem Talbot from the Islamic community; Kim Thompson, of Mirrors; and Lynne Winfield, of Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda.

The film was superb and captures a true story, which exemplifies the theme used in the MLK Day session — “Everyone Can Make a Difference”. The script, cast and director pulled the audience into this campaign with great courage in challenging an entrenched, all-powerful status quo on the issues of race and class.

Rising star Michael B. Jordan depicted the transformation of a “country boy” in search of a purpose, having achieved Ivy League success. Stevenson opts for the road less travelled as he evolves into a quietly brash barrister of steely resolve. This hero’s sidekick, Eva Ansley, who reminds us to judge on the content of one’s character, was played by Oscar winner Brie Larson. She captured the wit and spice that eased tensions through dramatic twists and turns.

Renowned Oscar winner Jamie Foxx channelled Walter “Johnny D” McMillian, the hard-working father of three. This central character became the fall guy in the home town of the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, true life being stranger than fiction. Johnny D becomes the transformative leader on Alabama’s death row.

The movie is a tapestry of transformation. A warden who humiliates the novice Stevenson with a strip-search ends up slipping Johnny D treasured family photographs during his time in “the hole”.

A Vietnam War veteran suffering post-traumatic stress disorder experiences great anxiety, but with Johnny D’s counselling, he approaches his execution with a quiet calm.

The main witness — a caricature of “white trash” — whose manufactured testimony leveraged Johnny D’s conviction, undergoes a transformation through the patient engagement by Stevenson. It became evident that he, too, is a victim of official corruption who eventually finds his voice and admits perjury.

This shift and the prosecutor’s “Come to Jesus” moment led to a victory for justice — the release of Johnny D. His fellow inmates’ celebration moved most audience members to tears.

The heroism witnessed in the movie was solidified during the reality postscript. The Equal Justice Initiative has facilitated the release of some 140 former death row inmates. One, who was mentored by Johnny D, was released after 30 years of unjust incarceration. The video of him being embraced by his family concludes Just Mercy.

Most of Thursday’s audience reported having shed some tears. The teachers were provided with a post-film worksheet from Janet Ferguson, the former director of lifelong learning at the Bermuda College, who met Stevenson at a February 2019 conference. The worksheets are for the longer term.

On Thursday, there was also a 15-minute debrief for the students. This included reflective questions on overall impressions. One student reported finding something “personal” about the film. When asked about the relationships evident among the death row inmates, another reflected a view that there was a “sense of love” among them. This insight was supported by an overwhelming show of hands.

That answer confirmed a meaningful outcome for the exercise, achieved with Speciality’s outstanding role in collaboration with all others involved.

Glenn Fubler represents Imagine Bermuda