Why "Clemency" is Better Than "Just Mercy".

There’s a certain gestalt that seems to create similar stories that resonate with people at the same time. When it comes to movies, that can lead to two movies featuring volcanoes (Dante’s Peak, Volcano) released in the same month or an actor being asked to audition for very similar roles in two projects. This week saw the release of Just Mercy, an adaption of civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s memoir about Alabama’s Death Row. This comes on the heels (no-nonsense working woman heels) of the release of Clemency starring the talented Alfre Woodard as the warden of a prison that must oversee death row executions.

You’ll notice that both posters feature the leads; Michael B Jordan for Just Mercy and Alfre Woodard for Clemency. Just Mercy, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) is more of an ensemble piece. Though Michael B Jordan turns in a nuanced performance as the young lawyer facing old boy racism, the film’s heart is Jamie Foxx’s riveting embodiment of Johnny D, a man beaten down by living under that unrelenting racism. The film spends time with some of his death row inmates, in the court room, with the extended family of Johnny D, and the office where Equal Justice Initiative is being ably run by Brie Larson’s no-nonsense passionate Operations Director. Just Mercy opens up to view the surrounding prejudiced world.

Of the 100 top films of 2018, only four starred or co-starred older women of color, according to the U.S.C. study. In 2019, Woodard had two such roles. Clemency is a more interior, locked down affair. Alfre Woodard’s buttoned-down Warden Bernadine Williams is respected and runs a tight ship. She’s in charge and her emotions are tightly controlled. The film focuses on interior shots of the prison and her home, with a few trips to a local watering hole where she tries to drink away her stress. As a lethal injection goes horribly wrong, we witness Bernadine’s composure slipping. Her marriage is suffering, she’s not sleeping and as her control over her life and job falters…then her supportive husband (Wendell Pierce) leaves her. The executions are shaking her convictions and the stress is destroying her life.

Two films that have executions and death row inmates–inmates that are predominantly black and often, unfairly imprisoned. The biggest difference is the method of execution: electric chair and lethal injection. Just Mercy is set in the early 80’s and looks at the cruel injustice of the justice system in Alabama. Michael B Jordan portrays Stevenson as a noble, caring young man on a crusade. Sadly, the heavy-handed musical score and polished speeches lend the film a preaching-to-the-choir feel. The film is saved by Foxx’s strong performance and that of his fellow inmate, Morgan (Herbert Richardson). The remorse, terror and misery that Morgan battles is heroic and witnessing his execution brings Jordan’s character a horrible wake-up call. Watching the film made me want to read the book and learn more about Stevenson and his human rights organization.

Clemency is restrained, much like the Warden. Bernadine’s quiet desperation is all the more powerful for Woodard’s expressive eyes; it’s a masterful performance. Written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu–she won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance for this directorial debut. Quiet, assured and powerful, Clemency is a film that can be watched multiple times for the performances and a message that might change hearts and minds. Both films condemn the death penalty and deserve to be widely-seen.

Drinks With Films Rating Clemency: 4 shots of whiskey to drink away the pain (out of 5) Just Mercy: 3 tall glasses of sweet tea (out of 5)

I Am Not Your Negro (obviously)

James Baldwin, The Last Interview.jpgUnsparing as history and enthralling as biography. It’s an evocation of a passionate soul in a tumultuous era. —Joel Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal

There was something so odd, yet so fitting in watching the Oscar-nominated documentary,  I Am Not Your Negro, on a rainy weekend at the Masonic Temple. Sitting in a meeting hall on mismatched padded chairs with Masonic tapestries and a domed ceiling around us, the crowd included mostly couples, (many over 50) and one family with pre-teen boys. All of us white. Many of us, likely unfamiliar with any of James Baldwin’s writings. The screening had the feel of a town hall meeting where we’d all come together to get political.

Sadly, the sound was rather muffled in this temporary screening hall. It was hard to distinguish between James Baldwin’s voice and the narration by Samuel L Jackson. It’s a powerful film, in part because his words are still so relevant today. Sadly. Pairing his narrative about the lives and deaths of Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King Jr with contemporary video of the sad state of affairs in race relations in America today creates such a resonance that I heard members of the audience actually gasp out loud.

As the crowd quietly filed out of the hall and down the stairs, there was a shared silence and many people were glancing at strangers to see their reactions. It was a thoughtful silence and I didn’t see the usual rush to turn on cellphones. The idea of crowds of mainly white folks gathering to hear a lecture on why we need to stop thinking Black Lives Matter and start thinking how to heal our country as preached by a gay black activist that died in 1987…what a remarkable achievement.

If you’re like me, and you’ve only read James Baldwin’s poems and a few essays, you may be inspired to go pick up a few of his books. Here’s a few suggestions: Four books by James Baldwin. I’ll be headed to the library to find The Last Interview.

Rating: PG-13 for violence and a few swear words

Drinks With Films: 5 glasses of French wine out of 5 — a toast to Baldwin’s time in Paris

Release date: February 3, 2017 (USA)