HBO Documentary Films held a special screening of “True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality” at the SVA Theater in New York this past Monday. Film subjects Bryan Stevenson and his family and Anthony Ray Hinton, one of Stevenson’s clients who served nearly 30 years on death row attended with members of the film’s production team.
Last week, on Juneteenth, Ta-Nehisi Coates testified at a House hearing on H.R. 40, a bill that would establish a commission to study historical reparations for black Americans. In the same week, news outlets uncovered further evidence of unconscionable conditions at the border for migrants seeking asylum under the Trump administration’s strict immigration policies. It is jarring to watch the headlines swing between seeming progress and disheartening backslides. We’d like to believe we’re moving forward into a better future. But progress is not linear. It is only by facing the past that we can move forward.
Few speakers capture this idea better than American lawyer, activist, and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson. Peter, George, and Teddy Kunhardt chronicle Stevenson’s career as a representative for inmates on death row and his activist efforts in a new HBO Documentary, “True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality.”
Stevenson’s message is clear. We have never fully confronted our history with slavery in America, or the reign of terror against black Americans that came after. The threads of those early crimes stretch into the present-day, and especially into our racially biased patterns of mass incarceration and death penalty sentences.
The directors and producers let Stevenson’s interviews carry us through the film. It’s a wise choice. Stevenson is an electrifying and inspiring speaker. He uses personal anecdotes and the wise words of his grandmother to shine a more honest light on our history. He moves us from the abstract ideas of racial discrimination to a reality we can see, hear, and touch. But he doesn’t leave us there.
We dive deep into our legacy of slavery and lynching and the role the Supreme Court played in legalizing these practices in the form of mass incarceration and the death penalty. But we learn about Stevenson’s hope for the future in the form of his Equal Justice Initiative, which has saved 125 individuals from the death penalty so far. He encourages us to visit the Memorial for Peace and Justice, his initiative which commemorates over 4,400 people who were lynched in the South from 1877 to 1950. Stevenson brings our harsh reality into relief, but also reveals a way to confront that reality and come out more inspired than before. He’s seen the worst our country has to offer but closes out the film with the unshakable sentiment “That’s not all we are.”
According to EJI’s website, the film is currently out on HBO and is available for free without a subscription for 30 days starting today. In six months, all restrictions on access to the film will be lifted. EJI hopes to make the film widely available to all audiences.