Dark Matter: “Just Mercy,” the Power of Black Families, and the Sadism of White Supremacy!

by

george white jr.

I watched the film “Just Mercy” the other day, the theatrical treatment of attorney Bryan Stevenson’s memoir of the same name.  Bryan founded the Equal Justice Initiative to represent wrongly convicted people, many of whom are on death row in the American South.  As if that task was not herculean enough, Bryan raised funds to create the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.  As its name implies, the museum traces the gravitational field lines in American life from the bondage of slavery to the bondage of mass incarceration.  Concurrently, the Memorial honors the thousands of Black folk slain during acts of domestic terrorism during and after the dying of the Reconstruction era. I mention all of this because Bryan, despite his slim build, is a giant walking among us and the entire nation should make a pilgrammage to Montgomery, Alabama to study at the Museum and Memorial.  But if you can’t just up and pack your grip and head to the Deep South, see this movie! If nothing else, it reminds us of how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go.

Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx both do a masterful job portaying Bryan and his death row client Walter “Johnny D” McMillian, respectively.  Brie Larson (“Captain Marvel”) also is quite good as Eva Ansley, the Operations Director for EJI who still works by Bryan’s side. Even nature makes a star turn, especially the open spaces and trees of the rural South.  Just for perspective, because saying “open spaces” may be too abstract, the entire population of Monroe County, Alabama could mostly fit into Marcy Projects, Queensbridge Houses, and Ebbets Field Apartments! As such, space (and the spaces between us) is an important part of the story.  In addition to the riveting performances by so many in the cast, there were a couple of things that stood out in dramatic relief and reinforced the larger narrative.

The camera lovingly lingers on the families Black people create in spite of these desparate conditions in which we live.  Although only 2-3 minutes of the film are devoted to Bryan’s family, we continue to learn more about them in his interactions with potential clients.  We also see the “family” of Death Row inmates who advise and care for each other. And the heart of the film is Walter’s family. Walter’s wife, children, and extended family provide an  emotional and intellectual power that fuels Bryan’s quest to prove Walter’s innocence. These portrayals are a stark departure from many mainstream Hollywood offerings that ignore or under-develop the potentiality of Black families (yes, I’m looking at you “Avengers: Endgame”), whether biological families or families produced by shared experiences.

The other issue is the joy that oppressors take as they torment other human beings.  My eyes were drawn to this issue because of a simple question. Hours before going to the theater, I listened to a recent episode of the NPR show “Fresh Air” that featured the real-life Bryan Stevenson.  During the interview, the host – Terri Gross – asked Bryan how he dealt with anger. I have heard this question for much of my life and, every time I hear it, my shoulders tense as my heart sags. Usually, people ask this question of a Black person in order to infantilize them, to discredit them, to suggest that they cannot possibly be rational or objective when discussing issues of race or the harm racism causes.  Admittledly, Terri Gross dressed it up a little bit by acknowledging that Bryan had ample justificaiton for any anger he felt, but, for me, that bell could not be un-rung. “Fresh Air” is not a regular part of my media universe, so I could be wrong but I don’t think that Terri Gross asks White people about their anger when it comes to White Supremacy. Now this may sound crazy but I do think that White people should be angry about White Supremacy, if for no other reason, precisely because White elites, charlatans, and fear mongers have used White Supremacy to make White communities less safe, to have White youth die in unjust wars, or to deny tens of millions of White people adequate nutrition, livable wages, or decent health care.  But anger is only one mode of human expression and as I watched the film, I saw something else.

In nearly every scene in which Black and White people were in the same frame, White people exercised their considerable leverage over Black people.  When Walter is arrested for supposedly murdering a White female teen, the Sheriff smiles as he briefly interrogates the Black man; he even expressed the glee he would feel if Walter tried to escape (he and his deputies were prepared to slaughter Walter with their pistols and rifles).  There, of course, is the scene in which a squad car pulls Bryan over one night – for no reason – and Bryan has to de-escalate the situation while the officers shout at him, point a gun in his face, and illegally search his vehicle. The thrill the officers were feeling was palpable! When the viewer first sees Bryan visiting Alabama’s Death Row, a White prison guard forces him to undergo a strip search despite the fact that such a search of an attorney is unconstitutiuonal.  As Bryan stoically complies, the guard sneers and, later, chuckles. This affect is so chilling and common that I think we sometimes forget a simple truth; for many White people, the physical, mental, and emotional torture of people of color makes them feel good. To paraphrase Donny Hathway, I am convinced that “someday, we’ll all be free.” But the racial inertia of America is very powerful and the battle for freedom and mercy continues because there is a perverse joy in White Supremacy.     

george white jr. is the department chair and an associate professor of history at York College-CUNY.

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