Near the end of the recent movie, Just Mercy, the court grants the character Walter (“Johnny D”) McMillian, played by Jamie Foxx, a new trial. [Spoiler alert—that’s not the end of the movie.] The turning point comes when the white district attorney realizes that injustice has been done and drops his opposition to Johnny D’s request. Up to this point, the DA, police chief, and judge have thwarted Johnny D and his Harvard-educated Black attorney, Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan), at every turn. Without his change of heart, Johnny D would still be on death row
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Jordan and Foxx compellingly portray the fear, betrayal, disappointment, and anger felt when they run up against the system.
Is this a narrative that “conveys a wrong-headed notion of white superiority and creates an illusion of Black dependency on white largess?” Does this story rob the Black characters of the ability to control their own destiny? Does the destiny of one race rest in the hands of another which must first renounce its privilege before any progress can be made? Well, yes—and no. In the context of Just Mercy, Johnny D and the rest of the Black community have no agency to control their destinies. The young attorney, though passionately committed to justice for Johnny D, has little agency in the context of small-town Alabama 1980s and ’90s. He continually fails to obtain a new trial for the wrongly accused McMillian. The decision rests with the white-dominated Alabama legal system. Jordan and Foxx compellingly portray the fear, betrayal, disappointment, and anger felt when they run up against the system. This is finally overcome when Stevenson ignores the legalities of the case and makes an emotional plea for the community rather than for the defendant. Only then did he achieve agency to sway an individual white man in authority who had the power to make a different decision.
The question of Black or white agency to end the system of white superiority isn’t binary. It’s additive. Richie Butler, a prominent Black Dallas clergyman says that whites are needed to solve racism; if Blacks could solve it, they would already have done so. And Blacks didn’t create the problem.
To contribute, we whites must educate ourselves through reading, viewing, and talking among ourselves. We must teach our children what racism is and that it’s wrong to be that way.
We also must speak out and act. We must put our time and money where our beliefs are, in organizations with proven effective strategies and leadership who wisely steward their resources. We must become aware of the unintentional acts we do and biases we have that reinforce the system. For this, we need relationships of trust with people with whom we can have uncomfortable conversations and receive feedback about our ideas, words, and deeds. Some Black people may say that they are tired of talking, that it is our responsibility as white people to educate ourselves and take action. I believe such conversations can be had if a relationship of trust has been established, if permission to have such a conversation is asked, and if the questions focus on gaining an understanding of something you have experienced as you educate yourself. Richie Butler says that if Blacks are tired of talking, they have to engage when whites are ready. If people can’t tell one another the truth, we won’t know what we have to work on. To achieve racial justice Black and white people must be able to speak and act as allies, both exercising agency to influence the system.
Resource: Just Mercy, 2019 legal drama starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx among others. It is based on the book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. I watched the film on Amazon Prime, but if you Google it, you will find it available on YouTube and for free at https://www.justmercyfilm.com