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December 01, 2019

Notable New Films: Just Mercy and Clemency

Two important films about capital punishment arrive in theaters this winter. One based on a true story and one fictional, both grapple with the death penalty’s far-reaching psychological toll and the potential for error and injustice in its administration. 

Just Mercy, adapted from the novel of the same name, is based on the true story of capital defender and civil rights activist Bryan Stevenson. As the film opens in the late 1980s, Mr. Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) is a recent graduate of Harvard Law School and is traveling from his home in Delaware to Alabama to provide free representation to indigent prisoners on death row. He quickly encounters resistance from prosecutors, police, and local community members as he takes on the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a black man who was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a young white woman. The film follows Mr. Stevenson’s struggle with the realities of a deeply flawed criminal justice system and explores the transformational effect of his advocacy on the lives of his clients and their families. Just Mercy opens nationwide on January 10, 2020.

Art created by @studionumberone

Art created by @studionumberone

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Clemency is the fictional story of Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), a prison warden in an unspecified death-penalty state, as she grapples with the emotional and psychological toll of facilitating and overseeing executions of prisoners on death row. The film quietly traces the devastating effect that presiding over more than a decade of executions has had on her marriage and mental health as she prepares the prison for another scheduled execution—this time, of a man who may be innocent of the murder for which he was sentenced to death. The prisoner, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), refuses to participate in preparations for his own execution, hoping for a reprieve despite his own lawyer's fear that mercy will be unavailing. Clemency premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2019, where it won U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. It was released in theaters on December 27, 2019.