How the industry overlooked the first film made on the Inclusion Rider

In 2019, Destin Daniel Cretton's Just Mercy made a quiet trip to the London Film Festival after whirring a storm at TIFF. There were no trailers nor much information on the film at the time, and almost every audience member went in with little to no expectations of what story they'd sit with for the next 137 minutes. It is arguably the most groundbreaking thing I have ever watched on screen for how it captured an entire audience's breath, making every gasp and wince audible while still maintaining a deep sincerity that doesn't take advantage of its subjects. 

The audience was loud in the same way they were silent. I felt collective heartbreak watching the untarnished and profound way in which an entire ensemble portrayed each real-life human with dignity, never looking to exploit the devastation they had faced. 

Although reaching an 85% "Certified Fresh" rating on RottenTomatoes and generally being well-received, how the film drifted quietly into background murmur became unsettling to me and altered my viewpoint on an industry I had previously looked at with ever-so-slightly rose-tinted glasses. 

Just Mercy was the first film made on the "Inclusion Rider" initiative meaning the majority of the cast and crew who worked on the film were underrepresented filmmakers. Destin Daniel Cretton shared stories about individual heads of departments on his Instagram, detailing the intricacies of how they became attached to the project and how their brilliance amplified his vision. If you've seen the film, you will feel the love emanating in every frame. It was made the way a loved one cooks a meal for you, or how you pour over the perfect gift for a friend in that it has compassion, empathy and genuine love and attention to detail in every fibre of it in ways many films do not. 

Without delving into comparison or wishing to recycle more insightful arguments on awards season, Warner Bro's other film of awards contention that year was Joker. It led reactions at Venice Film Festival, winning the Golden Lion, becoming perhaps one of the most controversial and divisive films of recent years. It was sexy and provocative in all the ways a studio can dream of because it garnered conversation and became the attractive option to push come the Winter season. Externally, it looked like it was making a statement, but it was following the tradition of thrusting the money in one place and watching it pay off. 

Just Mercy was left to make its own way, slipping off the radar and out of awards conversation early in the race when it was ignored by the now obsolete Globes. It'd be disrespectful and incorrect to say it didn't make much of a wave. The film doubled its budget at the box office, led vital conversations around the world and rightfully took hold of the Outstanding Motion Picture award at the NAACP Image Awards, as well as one for each of Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx's performances.

Since the film's premiere at TIFF in September 2019, there have been 30 executions in the United States. 13 of which came at unprecedented speed in the dawning days of Trump's presidency after a 17-year hiatus on federal executions. It is also important to note that the world saw a pandemic and, consequently, a momentary pause on state executions from July 2020 until May 2021, meaning there were intentions for that number to be much higher. 

I recently sifted through some reviews of Just Mercy where words and sentiments such as traditional, formulaic and conventional appeared multiple times. It is the beauty of movies that they will resonate in one heart and not another, but the specific language used led me to wonder if Cretton's directorial choices were perhaps not the issue. Instead, it is valid to question if our sensitivity to stories of this nature no longer exists. Just Mercy was the product of a reluctant Bryan Stevenson who didn't want his clients, and ultimately, friends, exploited for a Hollywood dollar. The film we got was the one that Stevenson wanted - the most empathetic version of his lived-in experience. He included those directly impacted by him in four of his clients David Garlock, Kuntrell Jackson, Talmedge Hayes and Robert Caston, who played "Prison Interviewees" and shared their real stories on screen. It was the most honest version of his story it could be, and still, it was left at the door and overlooked. 

It may be valid criticism to say Just Mercy is "conventional", but if that is the case, then convention should fuel a fire of rage so warm it eradicates apathy. Of course, many are referring to stylistic choices as well as the natural progression of Walter's case but, even so, I fear that if audiences cannot overlook a general wash of tradition to get to the aching heartbeat of compassion, then there is little left an industry, and ultimately, a world can do to push for systemic change. 

There are currently just over 2550 people on death row in the US, and if its general draconian and disturbing history isn't enough to shake the ground to its abolition, then media is the only medium we have. Theatre, art and film have always been the way we hold a mirror up to society and plead it to look itself in the eye. Where does its purpose lie if a film made so sincerely and true-to-life doesn't rattle the people with the power to eradicate it?

As a storyteller and also a film fan that gravitates towards narratives that push our hearts towards proximity and understanding of humanity, it scares me when films that have a genuine call to action are denied the legitimacy they deserve. We can close our eyes to it, but this industry runs on money and awards, and when a film doesn't deliver, similar ones of its kind are dropped and buried. There'll be many stories we won't hear, but we must pay close attention to the ones we do. We must take care of the fragility of compassion and urge our world to do better, both artistically and at a governmental level. 

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