Just Mercy shares shocking similarities to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in that both are based in the town of Monroeville, Alabama and show a black man wrongfully convicted of a violent crime by an angry white community. However, the Mockingbird Trial took place in the 1930s and Walter McMillian’s case happened in the 1980s. The original trial shocked the Monroeville community after Atticus was able to prove Tom Robinson’s innocence and he was still convicted as guilty and sent to jail. While in jail awaiting execution for his wrongful conviction the guards shot him 17 times in the back stating he attempted to escape.

Nearly 50 years later an almost identical case transpires where Walter McMillian is wrongfully convicted of murder and is waiting on death row for his date. What has changed in those 50 years follows in the wake of To Kill a Mockingbird, there are people who testify against previous false testimonies, there is a DA who eventually agrees all charges need to be dropped, and there is a new generation who sees men like Walter as a person. Progress is slow and takes generations to grow into full blow change, but Walters story shows that very change taking place. The community of Monroeville remember how horrid it was that a man was wrongfully convicted and want things right. There is a young guard in the prison who sees Walter as a human and lets him have pictures of his family when he is in solitary confinement. There’s a young new District Attorney who struggles to protect himself from the “old guard” police force and serve justice to a man he knows was wrongfully convicted of murder. There’s a community of family and friends who 50 years ago would have been lynched if they testified coming out still in fear to testify against this unjust case. All of these are the ripples of change that the original Mockingbird case set forth for this small town and for the nation as a whole.

There is a new generation of lawyers, guards, family, and friends who grew up on the equality and justice Atticus Finch tried to grant to Tom Robinson, and not the hate and prejudice that leads to his death. These few are the ones who worked their way into the corrupt Monroeville justice system and are helping make sure it doesn’t repeat itself again and again. These points play off my earlier post about how the coming of age story is imparted onto us as we read To Kill a Mockingbird early on in middle and high-school. The work this book did, the seed it planted, is growing and has grown with everyone who knows of it. Much like Scout, the people in this movie are new to a case like this but not completely foreign to it – and they know from one very smart girl and her brave father just how to handle it.

Distinction between a story and the truth

One thing that makes the TRC testimonies so emotionally effective is the uniqueness of each story and what version of the truth they tell. Antjie Krog examines the personalization of individual’s stories especially when recounting the murder of Richard Mutase and his wife. What was particularly interesting about this story is that there are four different narratives of the events that happened on the night of the murders. The discrepancies between these stories seem to undermine the truth: the truth of the dead, the truth of the survivor, and the mission of the TRC. Through the analysis of these stories, Krog seems to be critical of the TRC and how the stories told, especially by those who committed violent crimes and advanced apartheid, alter their truth to cater towards the audience present at the hearings, as well as the “imagined audience”, who are those that these narrators think will appreciate the personalized story the most.

What was interesting to me was that in chapter 8 there seemed to be a distinction between the concept of a “story” and the “truth”. The stories told in regard to the Mutase murders are the best example of this because while the four stories have overlapping components, it is clear that the truth is missing when the stories start to differ from one another. The stories become more about proving which perpetrator is lying, versus what is the truth of the situation, which results in a lack of justice for the victims and their families.

Putting the “truth” in Truth Commission

Truth Commissions are weird in that their purpose is not to seek justice. While crimes were committed, they are prosecuting people for those crimes. Knowing that there are many paths to reconciliation in circumstances like these, I wonder why South Africa chose to use a Truth Commission. I think that Krog deals with the purpose and effectiveness in the book, focusing on different ideas. If justice isn’t the goal here, then what is? I see a few answers presented in the novel to explain what the goal is for truth commissions. 

Narrative: The novel focuses on the importance of stories. One of the operations of the truth commission is to give the survivors a space to tell their stories. It also works to tell the stories of those who aren’t around to tell them. Krog gives herself this job saying, “I snatch you from the death of forgetfulness. I tell your story, complete your ending,” (Krog 38). She also focuses whole chapters like “Truth Is a Woman” on just relaying stories. The truth commission is a place for those affected by the crimes to be heard. 

Truth: The most straight-forward and simple answer is that the truth commission is there to find out what actually happened without the threat of prosecution. Krog explains that there is no one version of the truth. The commission can’t define a truth of what happened, but instead it allows people to accept their own version of truth. It presents the stories and creates a system in which people can analyze and understand what they believe to be true. 

Reconciliation: This last purpose is the strangest. While the definition, as explained by Krog, is supposed to be restored, that isn’t possible here. Krog says that “there is nothing to go back to, no previous state or relationship one would wish to restore,” (Krog 143). This is because the system has been a broken one. South Africa can’t restore a broken system and the truth commission allows it to move forward rather than reentering the cycle of violence of the system. Krog explains that reconciliation is actually a part of it and it is meant to be more of a transformation- a way to understand the past, not to accept it, and to move forward from that understanding so that this situation doesn’t happen again. 

While I think that Krog is making these observations about the purpose, it is even more difficult to understand if this is what the victims want and are getting from the truth commission. For example, Krog talks about the people who are sitting there and listening to the atrocities about capital punishment yet still call for its use. It’s complicated and it’s hard, but South Africa specifically chose a truth commission over other forms of closing and Krog attempts to find out why.

It’s not just black and white: Forgiveness in Long Night’s Journey into Day

Long Night’s journey into day is a story of truth, social justice, reconciliation, and undoubtedly forgiveness. For me, watching this documentary and seeing the awful things done and the pain the families faced was heartbreaking. I was angry watching the men put on trial for the things they did, as well as seeing the mothers wail and cry over their dead sons. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have the person that killed one of your family members sitting right in front of you asking to be set free. Although this film made me angry and heartbroken, it also gave me the ability to rethink the wrongs of others and my thoughts on vengeance. The families in this film were able to face the truth, the people who hurt them, and heal from it.

In the books we’ve been reading (Eichmann In Jerusalem, Death and the Maiden, etc.), we were faced with the ideas of revenge and retributive justice, but none of them mentioned forgiveness or restoration. Where retributive justice can be effective, I think letting the past be the past and restoring justice can build a stronger community. We want those who hurt us to pay but this documentary shows that forgiveness is the first step for healing and moving on. At the end of the documentary, one of the mothers who was talking to her son’s killer said, “forgive those who have sinned against you,” something this film has highlighted and something everyone can take notes on. 

The Graves of a Household

One group of victims shown in the Long Night’s Journey into Day film are a group of mothers who all have shared in the pain of losing their child to violence of South Africa’s police. Not only was the story of these mothers heart wrenching in its own right but in the larger context of the sheer number of similar stories all taking place around the same time is unfathomable and deeply distressing. The day-in-day-out, for lack of a better term, hell of life takes it toll. There is one thing that these mothers have though; the truth. Above all else they were able to get the truth and know that their boys were not really the “terrorists” the media portrayed them as. This reminded me of the importance of the truth – no matter how bitter, hard to swallow, or fresh the wound is the the truth set these mothers on a path to freedom. Immediately following their reaction to the videotape of their children one mother was seen being much chipper and happier. When asked if she was feeling okay she replied “[o]h, yes, very much better, because now I know so much more.” In this instance knowing more does help even if it is of this traumatic magnitude.

Hearing the stories of these mothers reminded me of a Romanticism poet by the name of Felicia Hemans. Hemans’ poem “The Graves of a Household” speaks volumes to the inverse scenario that these mothers could have faced had they never known the truth. A life of misery and want and wait for the children they raised to come home — never to know where or if they are alive. These five stanzas stand to highlight what I am writing about:

The same fond mother bent at night
O’er each fair sleeping brow;
She had each folded flower in sight,–
Where are those dreamers now?

One, midst the forests of the west,
By a dark stream is laid,–
The Indian knows his place of rest,
Far in the cedar shade.

The sea, the blue lone sea, hath one,
He lies where pearls lie deep;
He was the lov’d of all, yet none
O’er his low bed may weep.

One sleeps where southern vines are drest
Above the noble slain:
He wrapt his colours round his breast,
On a blood-red field of Spain.

And one–o’er her the myrtle showers
Its leaves, by soft winds fann’d;
She faded midst Italian flowers,–
The last of that bright band.

The truth these mother found was sharp, jagged, and painful. But it was a truth that most others do not ever have the opportunity to find. The TRC helped bring this truth to light, to set the record straight on who these mothers children were, and to bring the mothers some closure. It is not a good outcome, there cannot be a good outcome to something as violent and brutal as Apartheid. But it was a better outcome for these mothers than the mother in Hemans’ poem — a life of wanting, waiting, and wondering that never frees the mind.

What is truth?

Ariel Dorfman’s “Death and the Maiden” explores the story of a traumatized woman in a former totalitarian regime. The irony of this play is that Paulina’s husband, Gerardo, is in charge of the government’s Truth Commission, which investigates the crimes and horrors of the former dictatorship in an effort to bring forth the atrocities and guilty to the public eye for purposes of justice, yet he doesn’t believe his wife when she exposes the man who raped and tortured her. At his defense, Gerardo’s view of justice and the law stands as a barrier from allowing him to completely and undeniably believe his wife, as his job in the newly democratic government is to search for the truth through witnesses and testimony in a professional courtroom setting. However, his definition of justice, which is a pretty universal view of practiced law, inhibits him from listening to his wife and poses the question of whether or not trial courts expose the whole truth of these kinds of situations. It also poses the question on whether or not Paulina’s truth would even be valid within the official court system even though she is clearly certain that her truth is the only truth. Who is protected from the law in theory versus in practice?