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‘Clemency,’ ‘Just Mercy’ Shed Light on Prisoners’ Plights (Guest Column)

Two new films round out a year that focused on prisoners wrongfully convicted or harshly sentenced

Christmas week may seem an unusual time to release a pair of movies that largely take place on death row. But the folks behind “Just Mercy” and “Clemency” hope the holiday spirit will be open-hearted, and that the timing is, in fact, appropriate.

Two feature films round out a year where various media shed light on the plight of prisoners, especially those wrongfully convicted or harshly sentenced.

“Clemency,” which opens Friday, stars Alfre Woodard as a warden who witnesses two executions, leading to a personal crisis of conscience.

In “Just Mercy,” opening Christmas Day,” Michael B. Jordan stars in the true story of Harvard graduate Bryan Stevenson, who has spent decades fighting for the exoneration of erroneously charged prisoners. This film, in particular, will surely be noted come Oscar time, with newly-minted SAG Award nominee Jamie Foxx — who portrays the key defendant in a Stevenson case — a likely candidate for Best Supporting Actor.

While it may seem frivolous to see a trend in the subject of incarceration, we cannot think of a time when so much of the media, and so many celebrities, are focused on those behind bars. “Wrongful convictions are an epidemic,” NBC News producer Dan Slepian (who has been involved with the release of five such prisoners) said, “and something that the system — and those covering it — are still trying to figure out.” Such media attention clearly matters: Convicted Texas inmate Rodney Reed was scheduled to be executed in Texas last month, but the execution was stayed. It didn’t hurt to have helpful supporters like Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West (who was with Reed on death row when he got the word).

On television, Ava DuVernay’s powerful Netflix miniseries “When They See Us” depicted the plight of the Central Park Five, who served between five and 12 years before their guilty convictions were vacated. HBO’s “O.G.” starred Jeffrey Wright as a prisoner preparing for release out of one inhospitable system and into an unwelcoming society. It was filmed inside a prison in Indiana, and Wright said what most struck him was the early experiences of those behind bars. “I spoke with over 100 dudes,” he told us, “and what was so similar were their personal stories. They were guys who were abandoned at young ages, from broken homes and economic deprivation. We need to address those through early education.”

Netflix’s “Orange Is The New Black” (which concluded its seventh and final season in July) helped draw attention to the increasing number of women behind bars. Judith Fox, who runs a Rhode Island mentoring program for female prisoners, told us, “From my experience, the public has very little insight to the fact that most incarcerated women are there as a result of untreated trauma.” Social media has also impacted that discussion. A 35-year old ex-convict named Christina Randall — who served nearly three years in prison for battery and robbery — has some 400,000 subscribers for her YouTube channel, on which she offers advice for current and former female prisoners.

On stage, “The Wrong Man” (“What if I’m based on an untrue story?” sings the lead performer) just concluded a popular run off Broadway. Tim Robbins, who starred in the 1994 drama “The Shawshank Redemption,” today runs The Actors’ Gang, a theater company that works regularly with prisoners.

In the network news world, NBC’s Lester Holt recently spent two nights behind bars at Louisiana’s Angola prison, following a few prisoners in particular. Holt later held a town meeting at Sing Sing Prison, which included discussions with Bryan Stevenson and John Legend (the singer has been an activist on this subject). As shown in “Just Mercy,” a “60 Minutes” segment in 2016 helped bring attention to a Stevenson case.

Obviously, prison themes have been dramatized forever, from Burt Lancaster’s “Birdman of Alcatraz” to Steve McQueen’s “The Great Escape” to Paul Newman’s “Cool Hand Luke.” But while those were focused on singular characters or daring breakouts. Today’s are more political in nature, and seeking true change in the penal system.

Right now, most of the attention is on “Just Mercy,” and “Clemency,” which face daunting holiday competition from “Cats,” “Little Women” and the latest “Star Wars.” “Just Mercy’s” director, Destin Daniel Cretton, is cautiously optimistic. “Bryan Stevenson’s work brings us closer to each other, reminding us that no matter our social class, we are all connected,” he told us. “It’s ultimately a story of hope that left me inspired to be a better person and citizen. I hope it does the same for audiences this holiday season.”