Most Death Row Movies Are White-Savior Flicks in Disguise — Not These
Photo: Still from ‘Just Mercy’

Most Death Row Movies Are White-Savior Flicks in Disguise — Not These

‘Just Mercy’ and ‘Clemency,’ both out this week, right some serious wrongs in the prison-drama genre

When civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) walks into an Alabama prison in the new film Just Mercy, his law degree matters less to the guards than his Blackness; first comes an unnecessary strip search, then the demand that the civil rights lawyer “bend over and cough.” Many movies might linger on the violation that would undoubtedly come next, using the episode as a motivation for Stevenson’s crusade in the biopic. Not this one: Stevenson shoots the guard a you’ve-gone-too-far glare that makes clear to everyone in the theater that this isn’t that kind of prison flick.

It’s one of the many ways that Just Mercy — as well as Clemency, starring Alfre Woodard as a slowly unraveling prison warden — is reversing a troubling trend. Over the last 25 years, death row dramas have singularly focused on the stories of White male leads and their advocates. But Just Mercy and Clemency, both out this week, present moving depictions of real-life death-penalty cases with incarcerated Black men and Black advocates at their center, and cast an unflinching eye at the racial bias ingrained in the criminal justice system.

The half-dozen death row dramas released since 1995 point to a clear narrative formula. After years on death row, a prisoner’s execution date is finally set. A nightly news anchor catches the audience up on the key background info on the case. As the clock ticks down, lawyers and advocates rush to file appeals and petition the governor for clemency — campaigns that ultimately fail. By the time the fateful day arrives, angry protestors assembled outside the prison engage in dueling ideological protests; meanwhile, on the inside, the prisoner meets his unjust fate, and ascends into martyrdom for the death penalty abolition movement.

Probably the most well-known and critically acclaimed feature about capital punishment of the last 25 years is Dead Man Walking (1995), an adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean’s memoir written and directed by Tim Robbins. Prejean (played by Susan Sarandon in an Oscar-winning performance), a New Orleans nun who opposes the death penalty, serves as “spiritual advisor” to convicted murderer and rapist Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn). She’s not the only angel; with his cool pompadour hairstyle, vintage relaxed denim, and cigarette-smoke-framed face, Poncelet is romanticized throughout. In the lazily written whodunit The Chamber, (1996) the death row prisoner (Gene Hackman) is a Klan member who killed two Jewish children — yet, the movie attempts to paint him in a sympathetic light, too. These characters reflect a pattern in the death penalty film genre that would persist for the next 25 years: a guilty White man with a record of bad behavior is seen as a more compelling victim of an unjust judicial system than an innocent Black man who actually attempts to comply with the system.

Until now, Hollywood has been comfortable questioning the ethics of capital punishment only when both the inmate and the victim are White. According to Maurice Chammah, a staff writer at The Marshall Project and author of the forthcoming book Let the Lord Sort Them: Texas and the Death Penalty’s Rise and Fall in America, that speaks to a longstanding vilification of Black masculinity. “[In the movies] our notions of evil sometimes attach to a mythic white serial killer,” Chammah says, “but in real life the criminal justice system is attaching evil primarily to African American men.”

Standing across from Penn and Hackman’s characters are the staggeringly disproportionate numbers of people of color who have been executed by the state. Since 1976, Black and Brown prisoners have made up 43% of total executions, and 55% of those currently awaiting execution. And although death penalty sentences have been going down since 2000 (both in sentencing and executions), the capital cases that still go forward more often involve people of color than White defendants. In Texas, the unofficial death penalty capital of America, the number of people of color sentenced to capital punishment has actually risen from 51% to a whopping 75% in the last decade.

But in Just Mercy, co-written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, Stevenson and his team at the Equal Justice Initiative focus on proving the innocence of two Black clients who had nothing to do with the crimes of which they are accused. Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) and Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) are treated with contempt and violence by the police, the courts, and the prison staff. Contrast that with 2003 thriller The Life of David Gale, in which the titular death row prisoner (Kevin Spacey) has the luxury of vast resources immediately coming to his aid. He tasks reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) with clearing his name as part of an intricately crafted (and absurd) mission to prove that the state of Texas routinely executes innocent people — and get his family a $500,000 windfall in the process. Clearly the filmmakers didn’t see the point of looking up one of the hundreds of actual cases of exonerated felons who served years of a wrongful sentence before lawyers like Stevenson were able to help them navigate the legal system to gain release.

Clemency’s focus on Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), a Black woman and career warden on the verge of a breakdown, is another radical departure from prior films in the genre. Death penalty movies since 1995 have all depicted an older White male actor as warden. None of them have told the story from the POV of a dedicated staffer — let alone one who knows just as well as the inmates that the system is broken. Woodard’s subtle performance, matched with the confidently slow pacing and meticulously researched script of writer-director Chinonye Chukwu, say more about the downfalls of the prison-industrial complex than any didactic speech ever could.

Both Just Mercy and Clemency raise an important question: Does compassionate sentencing have to hinge upon innocence, or are early childhood trauma, mental health issues, and clear-headed remorse enough to warrant reprieve from death? Another prisoner that Stevenson represents in Just Mercy, Herb Richardson (Rob Morgan in an Oscar-worthy performance), admits his guilt in planting a bomb that killed a child. A war hero in the Vietnam War with severe PTSD and no mental health treatment, Richardson wasn’t in his right mind when he committed the murder. And in Clemency, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) maintains his innocence even on his deathbed, but Chukwu resists the temptation to give the viewer an easy answer. Both movies afford their Black prisoners full story arcs that humanize them beyond the worst days in their lives — something crucial, yet altogether absent in prior death row films.

Instead those films tend to reduce Black inmates to stock tropes like the Magical Negro (see: 1999’s The Green Mile) or Big Black Buck (The Life of David Gale again, in which Black prisoners make lewd sexual comments to a White female reporter). Just Mercy leans into that, pointing out how the historic fear of Black male sexuality plays a key role in death-penalty cases, especially when a Black male defendant and a White female victim are involved. A married man, Foxx’s McMillian admits that he had an affair with a White woman — and says that prompted the sheriff to arrest him for the unrelated murder of a White woman he had never met. That’s not an isolated incident: Rodney Reed, who recently received a rare stay of execution after an 18-year battle with the state of Texas, also had a consensual relationship with a White woman (though she was the victim in his case).

And as Just Mercy points out, inequity persists outside carceral state as well: When Stevenson heads home from his visit to the Alabama prison, local cops pull him over, then nonchalantly put a gun to his head when he asks the reason for the stop. It’s a story all too familiar to Black and Brown people in America — but finally, films about death penalty cases are rooting themselves in such truths. That’s how real change comes: not wringing drama out of a White savior’s fall from grace, but an honest, humanizing embrace of all the prisoners who endure within a broken system.