Back in the 1990s, before cellphones and email and the internet were a thing, when George H.W. Bush was in his final year as president, I headed to college. I had moved from East Tennessee to Philadelphia to go to Eastern University, a little Christian college known for holding together faith and social justice.
As I settled in and began studies, I kept hearing about a guy named Bryan Stevenson, an Eastern alumnus, class of 1981, who was doing some pretty amazing things with his life.
Bryan was a bit of a legend at the university, and his story had already been told and retold to me by our mutual friend and professor, Tony Campolo, a well-known preacher who has a reputation for “remembering big.”
But it turns out Bryan’s life is as big as the story Tony remembered. Bryan turned it into a book, and now a film, titled “Just Mercy,” which opened on Christmas and stars Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson.
Bryan went from our alma mater in Philly to attend Harvard Law School, where he graduated with honors. Immensely gifted and with a Harvard degree, he could have gotten a job with pretty much any firm he wanted, and name his salary.
Instead, Bryan headed to Alabama, where the residue of slavery is so clearly visible in a criminal justice system that enshrines racism. He moved into a one-room apartment in Montgomery “with nothing but a soccer ball” (according to our friend with the tendency to remember big) and started defending people on death row.
Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, attends a special screening of “True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality,” at the SVA Theatre on June 24, 2019, in New York. (Photo by Greg Allen/Invision/AP)
A century ago, as Bryan knew well, Alabama was one of the states with the most lynchings, and to this day it’s one of the states with the most executions. It is no coincidence that the states that held on to slavery the longest continue to hold on to the death penalty, in a direct correlation between racism of the past and racism of the present. That’s where Bryan felt led, even called.
Particularly urgent for Bryan were the cases of those who were wrongfully convicted, often because of the color of their skin.
He was not only looking out for the prisoners, but for the system that they had been caught up in. One of the first quotes I ever heard from Bryan was this one: “We have a justice system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent.” He sought to ensure that “equal justice under the law” was not just an aspirational slogan inscribed on the Supreme Court, but became a reality.
In 1989 he founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, which has now helped save the lives of over 125 men on death row and in 2018 opened the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, known as the National Lynching Memorial.
His TED Talk got the longest standing ovation in the history of TED Talks and has been viewed over 6 million times. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu called Bryan “America’s Nelson Mandela.” Time magazine recognized him as one of 100 most influential people. There were even whispers that someday Bryan might be a justice on the Supreme Court.
Stunned by the simplicity and humility of his life, one reporter said to Bryan, “Why would you be this kind of lawyer?” Bryan’s winsome response: “Why would I not be this kind of lawyer?”
The more I learned about Bryan, the more his decisions made sense. He had grown up in segregated public schools and steeped in the historic black church, where liberation and justice flow like baptismal waters. (At Eastern, he had directed the gospel choir.) Early in his career, as he arrived to defend a young white man at trial, he was scolded by the judge who said only “counsel” were allowed in the courtroom.
For many, Bryan Stevenson is a superhero akin to the Avengers fittingly played onscreen by the actor who played Erik Killmonger in “Black Panther.” Jordan has said he was intimidated when he first met Bryan.
Eventually, I got to meet Bryan, and for the past 10 years it has been an honor to call him a friend. He inspired me to write “Executing Grace,” my book on the death penalty, and helped me to craft it. Bryan has been a mentor not only in justice, but also in hope. Indeed, nearly every time Bryan speaks, he talks about “protecting our hope,” a precious, timely message. In his words, “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice.”
“Protecting our hope” means never losing hope that love is more powerful than hatred, life more powerful than death, mercy more powerful than condemnation. As Bryan says, “We are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
A “Just Mercy” movie poster. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
“Just Mercy” is not a film about a man. It is about a movement to heal the wounds of racism and hatred. More than knowing his name, Bryan wants people to know the names of the 4,000 African Americans lynched as victims of racial terror and too often forgotten — people like Mary Turner, who was eight months pregnant when she was hung upside down by a white mob, set on fire and even cut open so her baby could be stomped to death.
He wants people to know the name of George Junius Stinney, who died in the electric chair at the age of 14, convicted by an all-white jury that deliberated for 10 minutes after a trial that lasted less than two hours with no witnesses called and no defense presented, no physical evidence — and whose sentence was vacated 70 years after his execution.
Bryan wants people to know the name of his friend Anthony Ray Hinton, who survived over 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit, one of over 160 wrongfully convicted survivors of death row. Bryan wants us to know their names, not his.
He wants America to know the names of the casualties of racial terror throughout American history, and those who are next in line to be those casualties, as 1 in every 3 black boys born today can expect to go to prison.
During the filming of “Just Mercy,” I was invited on set to watch a scene being shot in an abandoned prison in Georgia. At one point a bitter white corrections officer throws a prisoner against a wall. Undaunted, the man smiles with a defiant hope, eyes set on heaven, and begins singing an old hymn: “I’m pressing on the upward way, new heights I’m gaining every day, still praying as I’m onward bound, Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”
Later, I got to meet a bunch of the actors, including the man who played the correctional officer. He smiled when I mentioned how good he was at being bad. As we ate, I saw an image of the world Bryan is building: prison guards and death row inmates talking and laughing over lunch. It was a world in which each of us is more than the worst things we’ve done. Where if we have the courage, we can see past the costumes we wear and get to know each other as children of God, and we can recognize and celebrate the dignity of every person.
Please watch “Just Mercy” with this in mind. Don’t just munch your popcorn and go home talking about what a hero Bryan is. Doing so dismisses what Bryan is really about because it lets you off the hook. Walk away from “Just Mercy” dreaming and scheming about the hero you want to be.
This week, Roots, the classic tale of slavery and survival, was revived and reimagined by the History Channel, and a new generation was empowered. Twitter erupted in animated commentary through the hashtags #RootsSyllabus, #KuntasKin, #Kizzy, #ChickenGeorge and #KuntaKinte. This year marks 40 years since the world was introduced to the original adaptation of Alex Haley’s best-selling novel, and many of the themes throughout this slave narrative continue to reflect some of the issues and values today in our community, including spirituality, tradition, values, and wisdom of a family of survivors. The four-part series showed us that regardless of our situation, it is absolutely imperative that we continue to persevere in mind, body, soul, and family. Below are several lessons that we, as a people, are able to take from this Alex Haley classic:
‘Your name is your spirit.’
The story of Kunta Kinte begins with his father, a Mandinka warrior, lifting him to the heavens to ask for his name, which was to be his purpose. This tradition was carried out generationally as a way to surrender the child to God (called Allah in the film) to allow them to become a vessel of purpose, which is similar to what we do today during a child’s baptism or dedication ceremony. Purpose gives life to another purpose and that purpose becomes legacy. This tradition is a foundation of spiritual fortitude that is to guide us through our lives and can be seen in Christianity and other faiths. However, the question for us all is “Are we named for our purpose and are we living it?”
We praise a God of all people.
What was interesting to see was the correlation between how the Black community is divided in spiritual beliefs back then and how it still rings true today. Some believe that Christianity was taught to Black people as a tool of control. Today, some look at Christianity in a degenerate way that made Black people meek, submissive, and unwilling to fight. Kizzy was most vocal about the faith with the statement ‘Jesus ain’t done nothing for Black people’. As time passed she and George’s wife Matilda, a Christian, were able to come to a mutual understanding of the spirit that recognized God.
Photo Courtesy of Twitter/RootsSeries
We are warriors.
Kunta Kinte was raised to be a warrior and every generation after became one almost by default of their spiritual connection. Kizzy was empowered by her father to be a warrior of the mind, body, and spirit. Although she fought for her freedom, she was ultimately still enslaved, but not in her mind. As our youth continue to be bullied by peers or police we have to continue to raise them to be warriors within the mind and spirit. This is a value well carried in the Black community, that has allowed us to overcome many things post slavery. But we must ask ourselves how can we help others who have lost their ‘warrior way’?
She’s hard-headed and I like her.
With the empowerment and simultaneous attack on Black women’s beauty, intelligence, fortitude, and accomplishments, there was such a wonderful representation of how we’ve always had success in our blood. Kizzy, the daughter of Kunta Kinte, embodied all of these qualities and took pride in it, which is what made her attractive. Even after giving birth to George as a result of being raped, she had the strength to love her son and raise him with the values she learned from her parents. The key element in all of this was the mutual respect between men and women for their strengths. When George wanted to marry Matilda, it is revealed that he was attracted to her stubbornness and strength, qualities similar to his mother Kizzy. That alone is a statement. This is a message to all Black women. It is your birthright to be amazing!
Photo Courtesy of Twitter/RootsSeries
‘We will not survive as enemies.’
Today, the Black community faces a crisis of crippling acts that is tearing us apart, including crime-induced, petty arguments, pride, greed. When Kunta is taken on to the slave ship there was a moment where many warriors from different tribes complained and argued until someone said ‘We will not survive as enemies.’ In the community today, we have people like Fiddler (Henry), who are able to ‘play by the rules’ and try to guide others out of their chained mindset. And there are other figures, like the tribe that sold the Mandinga warriors to the Europeans, who are driven by the aforementioned, crippling acts, without realizing that we are all on the same ship. When the slaves unified, regardless of their titles in their homeland, the ship’s power began to crumble. How have we not realized the value in being unified in the spirit?
Family is the root of wholeness.
Family is the nucleus of survival and spiritual connection throughout the entire series. There were many family dynamics that dictated how the various characters operated. Kunta and Belle were in love and had Kizzy which is comparable to a conventional family unit. On the other hand, George is the illegitimate child of the slave master Tom Lee, with whom he has a ‘weekend Dad’ relationship, which is strained when Lee treats him like a slave instead of a son. Eventually, when George and Tom repair their strained relationship, it can be compared to a situation when a father is absent for an extended period of time and eventually attempts to rebuild that relationship. What was seen in each of these situations was an unbreakable bond that allowed the evolution of the spirit and tradition. Despite any circumstance, the dedication to family is the root of wholeness back then and even more so now.
So what is Roots really about? It is about living in our spiritual purpose as we, as a community, walk through generational circumstances and evolve as a whole to honor our spiritual lineage.
Jamie Foxx as Django and Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz. (Photo credit: Columbia Pictures/Newscom)
Critique and controversy surround Quentin Tarantino’s movie Django Unchained, a phenomena that may increase due to Tarantino’s Oscar win last night. In particular, many lament the depiction of violence in the film. While cinematic violence is a worthy debate topic, it’s ironic that this critique is levied on this movie when innumerable films in the cinematic landscape merit such criticism. Of particular note, however, I have been mulling over the relationship between violence and religion in the film.
The portrayal of white men in American action films speaks to cultural religious beliefs within American culture. White males in the role of the “action hero” embody a messianic persona – one that is roughly consistent with conservative evangelical beliefs in a raptured white Jesus, returning to save believers while exacting vengeful punishment on fallen sinners.
Django challenges this imagery more by locating its protagonist, portrayed by Jamie Foxx, in the role of messianic deliverer. Django functions as a black Messiah in the most explosive period in American history, exacting punishment on a white supremacist culture that has neither come to terms with its sins or acknowledged them but instead misappropriated them on the very people and person (in the form of Django) who has come back to punish them. In this way, Django recalls the theologian Karl Barth’s notion of Jesus as the Judge who was judged in our place.
This inversion of conventional character development is unheard of in American cinematic history. It can also be interpreted as a response to the mythology and utter fabrication of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth Of A Nation”, which casts the “Christian” Klansmen as the heroic protagonists saving “innocent whites” from the dark evil of the American Negro. Arguably, every narrative since the screening of that movie in the White House in 1915 has been a sort of archetype for American cinematic hero narratives.
As a black Messiah, Django challenges long held socio-religious notions of good and evil that are reinforced by the pervasive imagery of avenging white heroes in American cinema. He challenges the very existence of a white Jesus used to justify slavery by inverting the “avenging white Jesus narrative” onto the very culture that has always externalised that evil in the face of the black or brown alien “Other“.
White supremacist culture is confronted with itself and with the idea that their deliverer may not look like them; that the one they have reviled is in fact their ultimate judge, jury and executioner. In the context of the movie, Django functions as a black Messiah in the vein of Ezekiel 25:17: “I will carry out great vengeance on them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I take vengeance on them”.
The “white savior” narrative – so central to American culture – was used to establish, reinforce, and maintain American chattel slavery. Tarantino’s film counters that narrative by creating cognitive dissonance: it unearths the racist dynamics of a society that simultaneously cheers for and yet remains uncomfortable with Django’s violence. Race-neutral critiques concerning Django’s violence abound, but few social commentaries explore what it means to see a black messianic figure in the antebellum era. We avoid the latter task at our own peril – to grapple with the artistic portrayal of Django as a black messiah is to understand something of the social and religious vision that motivated Nat Turner to ignite a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831.
FREE AT LAST?: In ‘Runaway Slave,’ pastor and activist C.L. Bryant and other African American conservatives reject liberal politics and ask whether big government entitlements are a new form of slavery.
The title of the new film Runaway Slave might lead some to dismiss it as just another dramatization of a commonly rehearsed chapter of black history in America. But when one discovers that the film is actually a documentary about a politically liberal African American pastor’s conversion into the conservative political movement, the title suddenly takes on a much more provocative tone. On one level, Reverend C.L. Bryant’s Runaway Slave is a coming-of-age narrative about his shift from being a pastor and NAACP Chapter President to being a prominent defender of small government, free markets, and personal responsibility. On another level, however, it is a clear rebuke of what the filmmakers perceive as the black community’s enslavement to the Democratic Party and progressive politics. Bryant wants us to understand that the black community is not a political monolith, and that our moral and economic concerns might be better addressed by the Republican Party’s conservative platform.
A press release for the movie leaves no doubt about the film’s point of view. After announcing that the movie comes to us “from the creators of Tea Party: The Documentary Film,” it goes on to describe the film’s general premise:
Rev. Bryant takes viewers on an historic journey across America that traces the footsteps of runaway slaves who escaped to freedom along routes that became known as the Underground Railroad. But in the film, he also travels a “new underground railroad” upon which Black Conservatives are speaking out against big government policies which have established a “new plantation” where “overseers” like the NAACP and so-called “civil rights” leaders keep the Black community 95 percent beholden to one political party.
The great achievement of Runaway Slave is its geographically and ideologically diverse portrait of black conservatism. Bryant talks with financial conservatives like Marvin Rodgers, a Rock Hill, South Carolina, an aspiring politician who emphasizes the “pocketbook politics” of supporting small businesses and encouraging entrepreneurship. He speaks with academics like the economist Thomas Sowell, conservative school-reform advocates, right-to-life activists, and small business owners. Interestingly, everyone but the Wall Street and country club conservatives are present. Their omission is noteworthy — precious few black conservatives are a part of the proverbial 1 percent. Nevertheless, by interviewing grassroots activists and organizations in nearly every region of the country, Bryant convincingly demonstrates that black conservatism is a national thread within the African American political tradition.
The film sets forth a conventionally conservative view of government: lower taxes; less government regulation; strong defense of property rights. Additionally, participants construe the government as a presumptuous behemoth that presents itself as the “Daddy,” “Slave Master,” and “God” of American citizens. In this framework, reducing the size of the public sector becomes an article of faith, not simply a political position.
Two dynamics merit mentioning here. First, deep appreciation for our nation’s originating documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, etc. — sits alongside profound disappointment with the current state of government. If our origins are laudable and our contemporary moment is lamentable, as the movie claims, then we must conclude that we lost our national footing somewhere along the way. The documentary avoids conceptual clarity about how this moment of decline happened, when it happened, and who is responsible for it. Progressives and Socialists — two distinct traditions which are conflated in the film — are blamed for leading America astray, but the accusation is too vague to persuade anyone who is not already a true believer.
Secondly, the attacks on government are general — there is no exploration of the merits and demerits of Social Security, Medicare, and the GI Bill, for instance, programs that are popular across the political spectrum. Instead, the viewer encounters Government as a monstrosity that overtaxes, overregulates, and overreaches at every turn.
Runaway Slave is also noteworthy for its conservative form of American civil religion. Many Americans are familiar with more progressive forms of civil religion — Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or Abraham Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, for example. But there is another side to American exceptionalism. U.S. congressman Allen West of Florida alludes to this tradition when citing Matthew 5 to position America as “a city set on a hill.” America, in this view, is the country where you reap what you sow. A land where hard work, education, and the hand of Providence guides families upward on the ladder of social mobility. It’s not difficult to see how many of these cultural values have become inseparable from the American brand of Christianity.
After watching the documentary, the viewer is left to wonder: what distinguishes conservative visions of government from the liberal visions? Reverend Bryant is not endorsing a libertarian or anarchist view of society. Despite his impassioned pleas about escaping from the plantation, there is no sign that he wants to destroy the master’s house. That is to say, Runaway Slave does not explicitly or implicitly advocate dismantling our social insurance system, ending subsidies to large agribusiness corporations, or stopping the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps).
Generally speaking, political realities temper the policy visions of liberals and conservatives. Bryant documents a deep commitment to liberty within the American political tradition. Rightly so. But there is little — if any — mention of our political tradition of equality, a complementary thread in our tapestry. The argument of the film would be strengthened if it directly addressed, for instance, the policy trade-offs that Presidents Nixon (expanding food stamps, starting the Environmental Protection Agency) and Bush (Medicare prescription drug program, comprehensive immigration reform proposal) made between liberty and equality. That oversight notwithstanding, Runaway Slave is one of the most expansive treatments of black conservatism currently available, and is therefore worth watching and discussing.
View the theatrical trailer below, and visit the Runaway Slave website for information on where to see the film in your area.
A DIFFERENT PATH: Ameena Matthews, whose father is Jeff Fort, one of the Chicago’s most notorious gang leaders, was herself a drug ring enforcer. But having children and finding solace in her Muslim faith pulled her off the streets. (Photo: Courtesy of Kartemquin Films)
Youth violence in Chicago has reached epidemic levels, with gunfire plaguing neighborhoods across the metropolitan area. It is a disease that is responsible for claiming the lives of dozens of young people, many of whom were engaged in activities as innocent as walking to school or playing in their yards when their lives were cut short.
Each day innocent bystanders are being killed due to the incessant gunfire. In an effort to counteract the violence, a number of community activists have come together in a collaborative effort with hopes of “interrupting” the bloodshed in the city’s streets. Their stories are told in the award-winning documentary The Interrupters. Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and produced by bestselling author Alex Kotlowitz (There Are No Children Here), The Interrupters chronicles the lives of three Chicagoans who were once participants in the destruction but who turned their lives around to become “violence interrupters.” Now they are working to restore peace to their community.
Last month, a collection of community organization, including the South Side Help Center, CeaseFire, and the University of Chicago Medicine, partnered with the filmmakers of The Interrupters to host a movie screening and panel discussion on addressing the youth violence problem. UrbanFaith attended the event and chatted with the students, community leaders, and anti-violence experts who participated in the forum.