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Just Mercy:Systematic Slavery

The film Just Mercy tells the story of a young lawyer named Bryan Stevens and the case of Jonnie D, an innocent African American man on death row. Jonnie D was falsely accused of killing a young white woman and sentenced to death. After reviewing Jonnie D’s case, Stevens quickly realizes that Jonnie D is innocent, and he tries absolutely everything to overcome the oppression in the current legal system and fights for Jonnie D’s innocence. Just Mercy illustrates that slavery does not exist in the traditional sense but in the form of sytematic opression. The film takes place in Alabama in 1989. Slavery has obviously been abolished for many years, but the civil rights movement just passed, and racisim and bigotry is still very much present in the rural south. Slavery exists systematically because once in the legal system African American citizens are treated unequally, abused, and stripped of inherent human rights. Just Mercy establishes that a racial hierarchy is still present in Alabama. The town’s sheriff, the judge in the first retrial hearing, and many citizens are very much racist. The hierarchy is able to manipulate the system so easily because they are the ones enforcing the laws. Several examples are seen such as false accusations, coerced testimonies, denied appeals, and ignorance. Bryan Stevens has to overcome all of these obstacles systematically in order to prove Jonnie D’s obvious innocence. 

One of the biggest symbols of systematic slavery occurs in one of the first scenes of the movie. Bryan Stevens is driving to the prison where his clients reside, and on his way, Stevens encounters about ten or twelve African American inmates participating in manual labor under the supervision of a white guard who is armed. If you take a screenshot of this scene and observe its imagery, it very closley resembles slavery from the 1800s. All the inmates were participating in harsh manual labor which is something that is unusual in prisons. The chains on all the prisoners are very prominent and noticeable symbolizing the slavery that is supposed to be abolished. The guard is positioned on a horse and appears to be looking down on the inmates. The images symbolizes the power dynamic where the prisoners are subject to the will of the white man. If a photo of this scene was taken and the context of Just Mercy was taken out, one might think this is a picture from the 1800s, and that is the point. This is not the 1800s and slavery does not “exist,” yet there is clear imagery that African Americans are the subject of inhumane behavior. The scene takes place at the prison where sytematic slavery is able to facillitate, and instead of rehabilition, abuse is taken place. This scene sets the stage for the many examples of systematic slavery to be seen in the movie.

It is an inherent human right to have representation in court, and nobody disputes that claim, yet this is not practiced justly. Upon arrival at the prison, Bryan Stevens talks to his many clients, and all his clients say the same thing about their past representation. They all say their past representation did the bare minimum and did not do a proper job. One client explains that he has only talked to his lawyer three times and he is a death row inmate, and another inmate states that he felt alone in his courtroom despite the “presence” of his lawyer. One lawyer defending a death row inmate was even for the death penalty. There are two words that describe this representation: inadequate and negligence. These lawyers are not doing their jobs which enables the system to treat African Americans unfairly. This representation is inadequate because they are not doing everything they can. They are not informing their clients properly, they are not doing everything they can, they are not fighting for justice. As explained by Jonnie D’s family, these lawyers care about just getting their paycheck and nothing else. Bryan Stevens does not charge them a penny which is a reason why they trust him so much. They practice negligence because there is more they can do and they do not do it. They do not exercise every option or inform their client of every option. Herb’s story is a good example of this. Herb is diagnosed with PTSD clearly and did not mean to kill anyone. It is said by multiple characters that Herb is sick and needs help. No lawyer besides Bryan Stevens tried to help Herb and his situation. These lawyers did not file an appeal, try to get Herb help, or plead mental illness. There were many options to potentially get Herb help and a better situation; however, he was left alone and subject to a racist system. If representation is inadequate and lawyers practice negligence, should it count as proper representation? Absolutely not because they are not being treated equally which causes them to be victims of the legal system, and this negligence and inadequacy fuels this system.  

Truth Commission vs Eichmann

When reading the first chapter of Country of My Skull, I could not help but think about our class discussion about the first chapter of Eichmann in Jerusalem. In our discussion, we talked about how the courtroom in Eichmann in Jerusalem is set up like a theater which takes away from the complexity of the situation. This is seen when the prosecution tries to paint Eichmann as an evil mastermind who orchestrated the whole Holocaust in order to create a sense of sensationalism which is simply not correct and it undermines the whole legal process.

In the first chapter of Country of My Skull, the exact opposite atmosphere is set up.The Truth Commission is extremely complex and anything but simple. Justice Dullah Omar states the Truth Commission started because “a strong feeling that some mechanism must be found to deal with all violations in a way which would ensure that we put the country on a sound moral basis” (8). The commission acknowledges the complexity of the past political policy and understands that a magnitude of people were hurt by these policies. Most importantly they realize that not one person is responsible but that a long history of political policies and politicians are to be blamed. There is not one person to put the blame on because apartheid represents a whole political system, and it would be unfair to the victims for the process to be rushed. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, the court is less concerned with finding out the truth and more concerned about being the court that tires and finds guilty a member of the Nazi regime. Having this scapegoat takes away from the truth and the complexity of the Holocaust. Former commissioner of police, General Johan van der Merwe talks about how he was an enforcer of the law but never an advocate. He says that, “it is not the police who came up with apartheid but the politicians” (6).

Roberto’s Inconsistencies

            Ariel Dorfman certainly gives her play “Death and the Maiden” an ambiguous ending, and it leaves the reader wondering two things: if Paulina killed Roberto and if Roberto was guilty or innocent. Since the time interval of events is so short, the reader is never able to get a good judgment on Roberto’s character. When reading the play, I noticed some inconsistencies in Roberto’s character that would make me believe that he is guilty.

            One inconsistency begins in act one scene two when Roberto shows up at Paulina and Gerardo’s home. Roberto and Gerardo discuss how serious the punishment should be for the past dictatorship and they share their opinions on the amnesty of the past regime. Surprisingly, Roberto takes an extreme stance and says that the people of the past dictatorship should all die. He says, “I’m for killing the whole bunch of them” as well as “there are people who simply don’t deserve to be alive.” This merciless and violent stance is expressed quite casually and calmly as well, and these statements would indirectly characterize him as a violent man. Now later in the play in act two scene two, Roberto is pleading to Gerardo to free him and says, “I’m a quiet man. Anyone can see that I’m incapable of violence- violence of any sort sickens me.” This statement is a complete contradiction to his violent stance on the past regime. How could Roberto advocate for the death penalty to all involved in the dictatorship when “violence of any sort sickens” him? I would argue that at the beginning of the play is best way to judge his character because he is not tied up and in his most natural state. This state would show his true personality because he does not know that Paulina is Gerardo’s wife. Also, the violent nature without a doubt line up to what he is accused for.

            The next inconsistency is brought to light by Paulina. Roberto successfully manipulates Gerardo into getting the story from Paulina in order to forge the false confession. However, Paulina gives Gerardo false information in which Roberto corrects in fear of not getting the confession correct. This provides further proof that Roberto is lying and trying to manipulate Paulina into thinking that she has the wrong guy. The corrections that Roberto makes are so unique to the story that in order to know that information he had to have been involved in Paulina’s torture..

Smith’s “Declaration” Offers a New Context

The first thing that jumped out at me while reading Tracy K. Smith’s “Declaration” was the poem’s structure. I have never seen a poem have that spacing and style, so I decided to do some additional research and learned that “Declaration” is an example of erasure poetry. Meaning Smith used a pre-existing text and took out most of the original words to make something new. The pre-existing text in this case is the United States Declaration of Independence, and she eliminates most of the original words so that the Declaration of Independence can be viewed from a context that’s different from just the original colonies tearing away from Britain. This new context is able to use some of the significant themes the original text offers and apply them to different ideas. Smith is using her poem to illustrate the hypocrisy of the document because slavery was so prominent when it was written. The hypocrisy exists because the Declaration of Independence advocates for the inalienable rights of every person, yet slavery remained prominent for many years after the text was written.

            Smith emphasizes the transitive verbs while leaving out the content making them incomplete in a sense. Some examples of this are “plundered our-,” “ravaged our-,” “destroyed the lives of our-,” “taking away our-,” and “abolishing our most valuable-.” In all of these examples there is no content provided, but it is because of this that we are able to look at the pre-existing text differently. Our new context fills in the content left out by Smith. All of those verbs fall in line with how people treated slaves during that time, and using the Declaration of Independence’s own words really highlights the contradiction. The writers of the old text failed to see their own faults in the society they created, and the examples “taken captive,” “on the high seas,” and “to bear” supports the idea that Smith wants us to see this contradiction. I believe Smith’s overall message is that we cannot excuse the hypocrisy of our history just because of how impactful the Declaration of Independence was in forming our country.