Some viewers may emerge from the gripping new courtroom drama “Marshall” shaking their heads at the racism of their great-grandparents’ generation. The movie, set in 1941, features infuriatingly bigoted villains, from a contemptuous judge to a roughneck mob bent on street violence — and in suburban Connecticut, no less.
Unfortunately, current events (Donald Trump, Charlottesville, Ed Gillespie’s advertisements) offer an instant rebuke to anyone inclined toward generational smugness. And if recent headlines aren’t enough, I submit two books - equally gripping, if painful, legal dramas that tell more modern tales.
One is Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy,” published three years ago, about a black man railroaded onto death row for a 1986 murder he did not commit.
The other is Danielle Allen’s newly published “Cuz,” which describes how today’s criminal justice system destroyed a talented but troubled African-American youth.
“Marshall” recounts an episode from the early career of Thurgood Marshall, before he took on the cases that would end segregation in public schools, long before he became the first black justice on the Supreme Court. Working for the NAACP as a roving defense lawyer for the unjustly accused, Marshall was deployed to represent a black chauffeur accused of raping the Connecticut socialite who employed him. The movie presents the Connecticut legal establishment as racist — but a bit more subtly so than the truncheon-wielding sheriffs in the Jim Crow South where Marshall was used to working.
That was a South that was supposed to no longer exist when Bryan Stevenson, just out of law school, opened a nonprofit law center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1989. But Stevenson soon started hearing of the strange case of Walter McMillian, a well-liked lumberjack sitting on Alabama’s death row for a murder he’d had nothing to do with.
In McMillian’s home Monroe County, everyone liked to brag about being the real location of the fictional “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But the facts that Stevenson uncovered suggested not much had changed since Harper Lee wrote her novel: Law-enforcement officials embarrassed by a murder they couldn’t solve. An establishment angered by a black man who’d had an affair with a white woman. A watertight alibi ignored, exculpatory evidence hidden from the defense, prosecution witnesses paid off.
Stevenson took on McMillian’s case, against tall odds. The first exculpatory witness he found was instantly charged with perjury and scared off. Eventually, amazingly, Stevenson got McMillian freed, and how he does so makes for suspenseful reading.
But not exactly for a happy ending. McMillian spent six years on death row. He lost his business, his marriage and his health.
And it wasn’t just one man who suffered. McMillian’s friends and neighbors knew he was innocent; they’d been with him at a fish fry at the time of the murder; they all saw the unbridled, corrupt power of the white establishment. And, Stevenson writes, “This one massive miscarriage of justice had afflicted the whole community with despair.”
Which brings us even closer to today, and to Allen’s sad, honest reconstruction of her cousin’s short life. Michael was arrested at age 15 for a failed carjacking in Los Angeles in which only he was injured. On his way to the hospital, he also confessed to several robberies in the previous days.
For that, he faced a sentence of 25 years to life — “one of the purest expressions of hatred I can imagine,” Allen writes. He pleaded guilty, was sentenced to 12 years and eight months, served 11 years — and was murdered not long after regaining his freedom.
“The years between ages fifteen and twenty-six are structured with recognizable milestones: high school, driver’s license, college, first love, first job, first serious relationship, perhaps marriage, possibly a child,” Allen writes. “For those who pass adolescence in prison, none of these rites of passage go away; it’s just that they take on a massively distorted shape. . . . First long-term separation from family. First racial melee. First administrative segregation, also known as first solitary confinement. First sodomization.”
Allen, a Harvard University professor (and contributing Post columnist), does not dwell on race in her book. She has other purposes: to confront whether she could have done more for Michael; to celebrate his vibrancy and his talent as a “compulsively good and imaginative writer”; above all, to explain how the war on drugs has proved so immeasurably self-destructive.
But it’s also impossible to read this account, especially of the thoughtlessly stupid obstacles put in Michael’s way when he is released, and believe we would tolerate it if primarily white children were treated so. As with the opioid crisis, it might take us too long to awaken; but awaken we eventually would.
About the time Michael got into trouble, Allen writes, the Los Angeles police “had 47 percent of African-American men between the ages of 21 and 24 in their gang database.”
“Survival would have required Michael to stay indoors, alone every day,” she writes of young men in his neighborhood. “Some do survive, and you will find, I think, that they have often stayed indoors.”
Not something any parent should have to ask of their 15-year-old.
Not something we would accept as normal for white children.
Go see “Marshall.” But think twice before celebrating how far we have come.