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(L-R) Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as Walter McMillian
Jake Giles Netter

‘Just Mercy’ Challenges The System But Lets Moviegoers Off Easy

Destin Daniel Cretton’s affecting-but-familiar courtroom drama tackles injustice without making anyone uncomfortable.

In the heart of awards season arrives Just Mercy, a harrowing and heartfelt legal drama that scathingly indicts the inherent racist inequalities of capital punishment in this country. The story of young, idealistic lawyer Bryan Stevenson and his fight for a wrongly convicted death row inmate in Alabama, the film from Destin Daniel Cretton doesn’t so much ask tough questions as it exposes them inadvertently. With so many films attempting to tell stories of Black oppression and triumph, we have to ponder whether its enough when a film impassions its audience if that same film isn’t willing to put anyone in that audience in an uncomfortable place or challenging that audience to look deeper at itself.

Much discussion has surrounded recent dramas like Harriet and Queen and Slim, very different films that both tackle the trauma racism has wrought on Black Americans; the subject of Black pain and who its depiction is intended for is especially pertinent. There’s always validity in telling such stories, but when Black pain is on the big screen—who are we hoping to be most affected by what’s being shared?

On November 1, 1986. Ronda Morrison was found shot to death at a dry cleaner in Monroeville, Alabama (home of Harper Lee and the setting of To Kill A Mockingbird, as numerous locals share with Stevenson upon his arrival in town). Local man Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx) is taken into custody. His case was flagrantly corrupted from the moment of his arrest: he was remanded to death row in Alabama’s Holmon State Prison before he even went to trial, he was charged with capital murder even though numerous witnesses verified that he was at a church fish fry the morning of the murder. He was convicted with no physical evidence, mostly on the testimony of a white convicted felon (Tim Blake Nelson) who’d made a deal with the prosecution. As newly-minted Harvard law graduate Bryan Stevenson, Michael B. Jordan pushes through racism (both the systemic and mortally threatening varieties) with the expected naivete and passion of a northerner who’s come South to make a change. Having worked on death row in Georgia, Stevenson founds the Equal Justice Initiative to help provide defense for death row inmates who may have been wrongly convicted and sets about his fight—earning skepticism and outright hate along the way. The movie doesn’t dwell on the particulars of developing the EJI too heavily (we learn early on Stevenson isn’t charging anyone but not exactly how he landed funding) except for his recruitment of local legal eagle Eva Ansley (Brie Larson).

Having already garnered a Screen Actors Guild Best Supporting Actor nomination, Jamie Foxx’s performance is one of his best in years; he imbues Walter “Johnny D” McMillian with both a weary rage and a quiet strength, a man who doesn’t deny his anger but who hasn’t become entirely consumed by it. And who, upon meeting Michael B. Jordan’s young Bryan Stevenson, has dared to allow himself to hope. As far as storytelling, it’s worth noting that McMillian’s forgiveness for his oppressors is present but not centered—moreso is his compassion for men like him, stranded on death row for varying reasons, fighting for some semblance of dignity in the face of doom.

Jordan’s best moments are when the easy chemistry between he and Foxx are allowed to shine. Just Mercy presents his Stevenson as unfailingly noble; his good intentions and earnest ideals are almost his sole characterization. But in Stevenson’s reverential characterization, from his fight to maintain dignity even after a dehumanizing strip search and his level-headed reaction to racist local cops pulling him over just to aim their guns at him, the film wants you to be inspired by him more than it wants you to relate to him. He remains mostly unflappable; Jordan works hard to suggest a cauldron of pain and anger just beneath the surface. It’s a shame the writing seems to work deliberately to keep so much of that subdued. The emotional stakes are mostly conveyed through McMillian’s family; his son explodes in rage during a hearing as the judge sends his father back to prison; there’s a tragic pain in McMillan’s wife Minnie (Karan Kendrick)—the hurt when she acknowledges her husband’s infidelity is just as sincere as it is when a judge denies Stevenson’s motion for a retrial even after promising testimony indicated things were swinging their way. The human toll of a system designed to work against Black people is what fuels Stevenson and drives the story.

For all of its effective drama, the film often relies on familiar beats. The phoned death threats, the shadowy traffic stops, a Northern do-gooder drawing contempt in a small southern town, his small-but-devoted team of fellow crusaders—most of this movie’s target audience knows these tropes well. And that represents what makes for the frustrating quandary for such films: are these stories meant to enrage, inform or absolve? Just Mercy is committed to reminding you of just how skewed death sentences are, and how poor Black people are disproportionately affected. But how often do storytellers opt for the rousing as opposed to the radical; content to offer evidence of racism that doesn’t allow for anyone to acknowledge their justifiable rage or, conversely, force anyone to recognize their own culpability?

Casting the primary antagonist of racism in easy, hissable villains like a dishonest sheriff or a two-faced prosecutor only helps to divorce everyone in the audience from how they themselves can be complicit in the racist oppression of those around them. In going for the heartstrings, we can let ourselves off the hook. When a shady litigator’s wife looks at him with scorn after realizing his hand in convicting an innocent men, it’s an example of how such films let the audience get away with relating to the wife’s disdain—as opposed to forcing them to think about how such a wife may have known, enabled or encouraged the tactics of a husband she loved. With these easy villains, everybody gets to go “look at those racists over there,” without being forced to question if they themselves are just as complicit in what goes on in their own communities.

Just Mercy is at its most affecting when the story focuses on the iniquity of the criminal justice system and the insidiousness of the death penalty. The exchanges between Foxx’s McMillan and fellow death row inmates Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) and Herbert Richardson (an excellent Rob Morgan) provide the film’s emotional heartbeat, particularly as his fellow inmates attempt to help Morgan’s Richardson grapple with the horrors of his past and the inevitability of his future.

Black pain, like all human experience, can make for compelling storytelling but also cathartic release. What complicates that is the machinations of mainstream Hollywood’s approach to storytelling; when films express or expose that pain, we all have to determine just for whom that cathartic release is allowed. Stories of Black pain that dwell too heavily on making sure no one in the audience is uncomfortable can encourage white denial, or stroke a sense of redemption for those who still enjoy tremendous privilege in a society steeped in racism. Just Mercy says a lot about a corrupted and racist system, but what we see in it says a lot more about us.

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Issa Rae And Kumail Nanjiani Talk Their Black And Brown Dynamic In 'The Lovebirds'

As our latest op-ed points out, black romance films are having a moment, and The Lovebirds is adding a comedic twist to the matter. Ahead of the MRC/Paramount Pictures' premiere on streaming platform Netflix, VIBE correspondent Jazzie Belle sat down with the film's lead actors Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani to discuss the refreshing black and brown dynamic between their characters.

"I think it was just more exciting to me [to take part in a different romantic dynamic]. It was just that, and I didn't realize until later," said Rae. "Obviously with working with Kumail, it just like 'Oh, I haven't seen an on-screen pairing like this' and [I] was excited to play with him cosmetically. But yes, it's exciting to see a new and fresh dynamic in movies like this."

"When you see a portrayal of Pakistanis in American pop culture, generally, you're seeing certain lanes. You don't see us being light or funny or fun that often," said Nanjiani. "My family is very, very funny. My friends are very funny, so it wasn't even an attempt to try and show that [brown characters can be portrayed differently]. I just wanted to show how the people I know are. My mom and my dad are some of the funniest people I've ever met."

Watch the full interview above. The Lovebirds is streaming on Netflix now.

Interview's music bed provided by Gus.

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Lakeith Stanfield and Issa Rae in 'The Photograph'.
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Opinion: Black Romance Films Are Having A Moment

It began with a kiss. Just one decade after the birth of cinema, vaudeville actors and dancers Gertie Brown and Saint Suttle gleefully embraced one another on film. They held hands and locked lips, giving the world its very first image of Black romance and intimacy on-screen. 1898's Something Good-Negro Kiss proved that love and affection was at the center of Black life. More than that, intimacy has always been essential to the survival of our people. Now, some 120 plus years later— cinema has finally reached the point where it has expanded to allow complex images of Black love, across time periods, between same-sex couples, and more recently, without being bogged down in trauma and pain.

Before Good-Negro Kiss was discovered in 2018, one of the earliest versions of Black romance in cinema was 1954's Carmen Jones starring Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge. Filmed in sweeping cinemascope, Carmen Jones follows a soldier named Joe (Belafonte) who gets so enamored with Carmen (Dandridge) that he becomes obsessive, even going AWOL to be with her. Though the film is sexy, and the tension between the actors is palpable — the romance in Carmen Jones is stilted to make white audiences comfortable. Hollywood was only willing to see Black intimacy through the lens of a renowned musical, wrapped in what ultimately becomes a tragedy. By the end of the film, Joe murders Carmen out of obsession and jealousy. Despite Belafonte and Dandridge's determination to showcase their sensuality, the material only allowed them to go so far. This sort of restraint would become the blueprint for generations of Black romance films.

Considering the utter chaos of the 1960s, it's a wonder that 1964's Nothing But A Man was ever made. A decade after Carmen Jones, Hollywood felt it was time to roll the dice on something different. Starring Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln as Duff Anderson, a railroad worker, and Josie Dawson, a Birmingham school teacher, respectively, Nothing But A Man isn't packaged for white audiences like the musicals of the previous decades. However, the burdens and pains of the couple's relationship, namely Duff's flakiness about commitment and the rage he feels as a Black man living in the South, fall on Josie's shoulders. Moving into the 1970s with films like Claudine and Mahogany, and certainly, in the 1990s and early 2000s, Black romance on-screen would either be shrouded in comedic relief, or the relationships became the sole burden of the Black woman to bear. Often, both tropes were present.

Still, Black romance stories were always evolving. The 1980s sparked something new for Black sensuality in the movies. Though these were still heteronormative depictions, (aside from 1984's The Color Purple), films made significant steps forward in terms of diverse images of Black people. However, they still held on to sexist ideals. 1986's She's Gotta Have It used a Black woman's rape as a form of character development while 1988's Coming to America — billed as a comedy, rewarded its protagonist for lying to his love interest. This would become the formula for the many Black romance movies that came to fruition in the 1990s. Cheating, lies, abandonment, lack of accountability, and trauma are all very present in some of our most beloved films. Poetic Justice, Love Jones, Jason's Lyric, The Best Man, and Love & Basketball, all have some form of struggle love embedded within the narrative — typically leaving Black women wielding the shorter end of the stick.

Poetic Justice is riddled in misogyny, The Best Man has a serial cheater as a leading man, and in Love Jones, the lack of communication and accountability from both partners is dizzying. Moreover, women are often asked to overlook cheating, lying, manipulation, or being friend-zoned to present themselves as worthy of their male partner by the film's conclusion. Yet, in our quest to connect and see brown bodies sensually and romantically in cinema, we hold these films close to our hearts, overlooking many of the toxic traits of the characters.

Despite the mega success of Black films in the 1990s— following the debut of Gina Prince-Bythewood's Love & Basketball in 2000, Black stories in cinema, aside from a few here and there, were all but erased in Hollywood. Throughout this near decade-long drought, prolific director Tyler Perry was one of the only voices in the game. However, the quality of Perry's storylines, as well as the portrayal of his female characters, have proven to be problematic. These characters are often emotionally broken, angry, and at times unhinged. If and when they do find love in movies like 2005's Diary of An Angry Black Woman, 2008's The Family That Preys and 2009's I Can Do Bad All By Myself, it's after they suffer some dire consequence or horrific punishment. This was particularly jarring during a time when there were hardly any other mainstream film images of Black people on-screen.

Thankfully, as we pressed forward into the second decade of the 21st century, Black filmmakers, writers, and producers were knocking down doors in Hollywood once again. In 2012, Ava DuVernay stepped onto the scene with her stellar film, Middle of Nowhere. The film follows Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) grappling with the choice to leave her incarcerated husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick), to follow her dreams and possibly find new love with a bus driver named Brian (David Oyelowo). Though this was a significant shift in the way Black intimacy, sensuality, and romance was depicted in movies, the real transformation happened in 2016, with Barry Jenkins' Academy Award-winning, Moonlight.

Loosely based on screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney's real life, Moonlight puts the Black male coming-of-age story center stage. However, instead of honing in on the violence and despair of the inner city, like the hood homeboy films of the 1990s — Moonlight focuses on Black love between Black men. First, there is the relationship protagonist Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) has with his father-figure, Juan (Mahershala Ali). Later, Chiron explores his queer identity with his classmate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). The film is a sumptuous duality of hypermasculinity against lush sensuality. With this film, Jenkins effectively shattered our expectations regarding Black intimacy on-screen, while unraveling why Black love in all of its varied prisms deserves a spotlight in cinema.

Moonlight would pave the way for 2019's Queen & Slim and 2020's The Photograph. Two vastly different films, one— a harrowing dramatic thriller, centering Queen (Joe Turner-Smith ) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) who are forced together by circumstance. A dull Tinder date paves the way for a standoff with a racist police officer who eventually lays dead, prompting our leads to run for their lives.

Penned by Lena Waithe and directed by Melina Matsoukas — the film is almost an antithesis of what we've seen before when it comes to Black romance in the movies. Instead of the tried and true formula of a meet-cute, conflict, and resolution, Queen & Slim unites a Black man and a Black woman through Black radicalism. They come to lean on one another, inadvertently building a foundation when there is no one else either of them can trust or turn to. The weight of their relationship rests equally on both of their shoulders, as they become each other’s ride or die.

In contrast to Queen & Slim, writer/director Stella Meghie's The Photograph, is a much-deserved presentation of soft Black romance, without the trauma or brutality. The film follows Mae (Issa Rae), an art curator grappling with the death of her estranged mother, and Michael (Lakeith Stanfield) — a journalist who crosses paths with Mae's late mother's work. The film follows the typical romance formula, but the conflict and resolution aren't gut-wrenching or emotionally tumultuous. Mae and Micheal deal with real-life issues without being battered or broken. Both parties —like the lead characters in Queen & Slim, share the weight of their missteps and miscommunication. The Photograph is a recognition of straight-forward Black sensuality and love without the heaviness of Black pain. Despite all of this, the film has garnered mixed reviews. Since there isn’t any toxicity between the main characters or much comedy in The Photograph, it appears foreign to us. As a community, we’ve been conditioned to only recognize Black Love shrouded in chaos. Presently, Black women in particular, are asking Black people to look beyond archaic examples of love that are rooted in sexism, misogynoir, and rigid gender roles. Instead, Meghie presents two grown people who must hold themselves and each other accountable to have a chance at a loving and modern relationship.

Black women are also getting the opportunity to be seen as romantic leading women, in the broader scope of cinema alongside leading men from different cultures. Following the footsteps of the 2006 film Something New, where Sanaa Lathan's leading man was Australian actor Simon Baker, Issa Rae will become a leading lady once more in Netflix's The Lovebirds. The Insecure actress stars as Leilani, opposite Pakistani-American actor Kumail Nanjiani. Rae is a woman who is grappling with her strained relationship with her boyfriend, Jibran (Nanjiani). The couple's commitment to one another is hilariously put to the test when they suddenly find themselves in the middle of a chaotic murder mystery.

Black film, and undoubtedly Black romance film, has come a long way since that very first kiss was captured on-screen in 1898. With more women filmmakers at the helm, diverse projects, and the current wave of Black cinema in Hollywood, Black romance movies have the opportunity to give the next generations more nuanced depictions of connection, sensuality, sex, and intimacy. With films like Queen & Slim, Moonlight, The Photograph, and The Lovebirds — we have witnessed Black people from all walks of life and sexualities dive into romantic relationships with love, accountability, and self-awareness, which are truly the ultimate relationship goals.

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Black Thought And Questlove Secure First-Look Deal With Universal

Amir “Questlove” Thompson and Tarik “Black Thought” Trotter landed a three-year first-look deal with Universal. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the founders of the Legendary Roots Crew will create scripted and unscripted content for Universal Television Alternative Studio and Universal TV under the duo's Two One Five Entertainment imprint.

“This deal is very important to us as we've been content producers and storytellers for our entire career,” Questlove said in a statement on Wednesday (May 13). “A significant investment from Universal Television Alternative Studio and Universal Television in our vision allows us to share these stories on a much larger scale. Tarik and I see this as the next chapter to our careers, and we are very involved in the entire process. I'm directing, Tarik is writing and we both are producing.”

The deal extends the Roots decade-long relationship with NBC, first on Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night talk show in 2009, and serving as the house band for NBC’s Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, which premiered in 2014. Questlove is also music director for the Tonight Show.

“Many of our initial projects have been music-centric content, and one of our goals is to become the premiere hub for music storytelling — a safe space for these stories to be shared across a variety of platforms,” added Black Thought. “Eventually we will expand outside of music with our stories. However, as we all know, every story has a rhythm and Two One Five Entertainment will harness that rhythm and create well-produced, compelling content.”

Two One Five Entertainment's roster of projects include the AMC docuseries, Hip Hop Songs that Shook America, along with Black Woodstock, chronicling the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. The company has also had a hand in the Broadway productions, Black No More and Soul Train the Musical.

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