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  • Writer's pictureAlexander Wardach


In a time of social-political turmoil, film provides the opportunity for people to live vicariously through circumstances they may or may not have experienced. This machine of empathy generation is an integral tool in engaging an audience in dramatic storytelling. And seldom are there films more dramatic and profound than those stories which offer a commentary on current issues.

Personally, a group of films stand out to me as historic chapter-marks in an ongoing struggle: the criminal justice system and its connection with racial inequality. This topic is persistent. These stories are critical. These films are pivotal.

While there are many films which discuss this topic, or facets thereof, the films which have affected my perspective are To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), In the Heat of the Night (1967), Fruitvale Station (2013), and Just Mercy (2019).

Each film addresses a story within the timeline of racial injustice. From the time of the Great Depression to the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, to the founding of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and further, my perspective and understanding of these issues has been deeply molded and expanded.

At a young age, To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) was my first serious look at the horrible injustices suffered by minorities due to deep-rooted biases in the 1930s. During a time of severe struggle and ideological oppositions in the South, TKAM told the story of standing up for what is right and defending those who were not offered the opportunity to equally defend themselves. A story of prejudice and the rule of law coupled with the filmmaking techniques of monochromatic visuals and sophisticated screenwriting, crafted a timeless piece of art. However, my perspective was much more concentrated on a specific time and place than it is now.

The next film of this set that I saw was Fruitvale Station. Now much older, my overall understanding of the impact and ongoing nature of this issue was more solidified. Yet much more historical learning was to come. I had heard little details about Oscar Grant and the horrific incident in Oakland, but this film explained the man and the circumstances with much greater clarity. From a filmmaking standpoint, the intercutting of documentary and narrative material and visionary use of sound was powerful. I, as a sample of the audience, was able to connect to the person behind the headline. Too frequently do these stories only reach an audience through headlines and media clips and too rarely does the public truly understand the depth of the individual’s personality, goals, motives, and relationships. From an outside perspective, their life may only be known in relation to a single event. Thus, a broader and deeper understanding emerged.

A few years later, within the span of one month, I saw In the Heat of the Night and Just Mercy. Two films which reflect similar issues of prejudice and defending one’s honor in two time periods. A cop and a lawyer. The Civil Rights era and the founding of the EJI. With an almost 40-year difference in release, both films portray issues in inequality. As a producer, the existing political conditions at the time of filming In the Heat of the Night mirrored some of the difficulties seen in the film. Similarly, the release of Just Mercy came at a turbulent time of polarization and efforts involved in condemning racial injustices. As a young man, my experience watching these two films, one of which depicting a time long before I was born, was profoundly moving.

Regardless of one’s relation to the circumstances and thematic elements involved in these films, To Kill a Mockingbird, In the Heat of the Night, Fruitvale Station, and Just Mercy are just a few of many films which have the acute and pervasive ability to broaden one’s perspective on these issues. My perspective on this topic is constantly evolving. More films. More stories. More insight into the timeless struggles faced by so many and the foundation of the people involved.

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