By Tanya Lombard, AT&T Vice President of Multicultural Engagement
Earlier this month, WarnerMedia, along with the Brookings Institution and the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, hosted a screening of Warner Bros. Pictures’ Just Mercy at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The film tells the true story of an attorney’s fight to defend a man wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
Both the attorney Bryan Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan, and the defendant Walter McMillian, played by Jamie Foxx, are black and young. No solid evidence is presented in the case pointing to McMillian as the murderer, but false accusations, political animus and implicit bias against a black man are enough to send McMillian to death row.
The movie is based on Stevenson’s memoir of the same name that traces his work as founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. The EJI provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons.
Prior to the screening of the movie, the evening’s program included remarks by the Reverend Al Sharpton, founder and president of National Action Network; Glenn Hutchins, co-chair of the Brookings Board of Trustees, AT&T board member and founder of the Hutchins Center at Harvard; and Andrew Reinsdorf, senior vice president of government relations at WarnerMedia.
In a pre-curtain conversation between Stevenson and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University, Stevenson said he hoped the movie will help change the narrative of the country.
“We’re going to have to change the narrative,” he said. “That’s why it’s so painful when unarmed black people are shot by the police. That’s why it’s so painful when you hit those glass ceilings. The great challenge of our day is actually confronting this history, acknowledging this history that has primed us to see people through this lens in a way that is very destructive…I don’t think we did anywhere what we needed to do at the end of the Civil War. We didn’t do it when we confronted, finally, lynching. We didn’t do it when we passed the Civil Rights laws. It’s what we have to do now if we’re going to actually make this progress…this journey to freedom real.”
Just Mercy may already have helped start that change as it marks WarnerMedia’s new diversity policy that was implemented to ensure that the studio’s projects are truly inclusive, Hutchins told the audience.
“You should understand this film in the context of WarnerMedia’s broad diversity and inclusion policy which was crafted in collaboration with Michael B. Jordan, who in addition to starring in the movie is an executive producer of it,” he said. “The policy which has been implemented, not just on the productions for Warner Bros. but also across HBO and Turner, ensures that all creative endeavors will go the extra mile to consider diversity and inclusion goals for staffing positions both behind and in front of the camera.”
The importance of criminal justice reform was seen just over a year ago when the bipartisan First Step Act was signed into law. This was indeed an important first step, but, as Just Mercy makes clear, the larger dialog has been sorely lacking, and that has real-world consequences. Bryan Stevenson was able to save Walter McMillian from execution, but not everyone is lucky enough to have someone like Mr. Stevenson on their side. It’s time we take that “luck” out of the criminal justice system and make the safeguards for justice included in the Bill of Rights work for all Americans, no matter where they live or what color their skin. That would bring a just mercy for all Americans.