Bryan Stevenson (281438)
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For a little over 200 minutes, or thirty seconds for every 400 years of what Bryan Stevenson calls a “narrative of racial difference,” you see and hear an “untold story of cruelty that hides in the silence of this country.” In “True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality” that silence is broken, and what he narrates is not only how he came to assist those falsely accused of crimes they did not commit, but the nation’s complicity, particularly its courts, in this continuing practice of injustice to the poor and marginalized people.

Halfway into this gripping and often harrowing documentary, Stevenson’s grandmother takes him to a shack in the backwoods of Alabama where she asks if can hear anything. He says he can’t and his grandmother begins to cry. Many years later sitting on the dock of a river where enslaved people were transported, Stevenson says he began to hear their voices and it took him back to that shack. The memories of that shack, his grandmother’s tears and his mother’s defiance affected Stevenson’s life and inspired him to become a lawyer who has created his own Equal Justice Initiative and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala.

The Memorial is showcased in the documentary and it is never more engrossing than to see the monuments to the numberless people lynched in America. Stevenson deftly connects the lynchings with the death penalty, something he has been fighting against since he earned his law degree from Harvard. “I want to thank you all for coming out this evening, and staying with us as we try to create a better tomorrow,” he told a huge audience at the opening of the Memorial. Not until there is truth and reconciliation, he said, “and an apology for the injustices,” can the nation create that better tomorrow.

While Stevenson is a gifted and tireless attorney for those wrongly incarcerated—some 156 people sentenced to death have been found innocent and freed—he is also a talented pianist and storyteller, conveying the long years of America’s nightmare from the genocide of the Native American population, to slavery, to the current mass incarceration, where the United States with more than 2 million behind bars is number one in the world.

“We have to change this narrative,” he said, a narrative that has seen far too many innocent people convicted and sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. One falsely accused Black man is Anthony Ray Hinton, and his story is a thread that Stevenson develops and documents throughout the film. Hinton spent more than 30 years in prison, based on a gun belonging to his mother. Prosecutors charged that the gun was used in the shooting at three incidents. During his incarceration on death row, Hinton said he would never “forget the smell” after a prisoner had been executed in the electric chair.

Stevenson and the EJI took on his case, as they had taken on countless others, and he was finally exonerated in 2015 by a Supreme Court decision. One of the film’s most jubilant scenes occurs outside the Jefferson County courthouse when Hinton is reunited with his family and embraced by his attorneys.

It’s a riveting moment of victory such as this that counterbalances the narrative of racial difference that stretches across practically all of the nation’s history. Stevenson recounts how America has still not found a way to apologize for these atrocities. When Stevenson takes a group of Black children to the sites where some of these atrocities occurred, they use trowels to fill jars of dirt, commemorating a victim. These jars are later seen on display at the Memorial, reminding visitors of a terrible past, one that, as Stevenson related, “should never be forgotten.”