Back in 1999, I was watching the movie “Life” with Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence when it hit me: This isn’t funny.
It wasn’t because of any individual scene (although I don’t think the film is either of the comedians’ greatest roles); it was the premise that disturbed me. If you’re not familiar, “Life” is a kind of buddy dramedy about two men, in 1932, who get wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for life, and eventually develop a strong friendship.
At the end (spoiler alert), they get out when they’re in their 90s. The last scene has them bickering at a baseball game, with the viewer meant to smile and slip into an at-least-they-have-each-other reverie.
I remember getting to the end and thinking how messed up it was that I was supposed to feel like that was a happy ending, that the time and the experiences and the lives they lost at the hands of racism and injustice was beside the point.
I couldn’t do it.
If the thought of imprisoned fictional characters infuriated me, you can easily guess my thoughts when real life people are unjustly imprisoned. Especially children.
It’s among the reasons why the upcoming elections on Aug. 4 are vitally important. Allow me to flex my English major sensibility a bit: I chose the word “vital” not to mean “very” but to mean “essential” as in “necessary for the success or continued existence of something.” And the “something” is Black lives.
We’ll be focusing on the upcoming elections all month on MLK50. We want to give you, our readers, the tools to understand what’s at stake based on what you’ve told us is most relevant to your lives.
Today we published a story by Jacob Steimer that explores the Juvenile Court judge race. As Jacob writes, the judge runs a $13 million operation, appoints the 11 magistrates who hear many of the cases, sets punishments and decides which cases to transfer to the adult criminal justice system, when the District Attorney requests such a transfer. And the judge, like the DA, has an eight-year tenure. A lot of good things can be done in eight years. A lot of damage can be done in eight years too.
Shelby County’s Juvenile Court was being monitored by the Department of Justice until 2018 for, among other things, treating Black children more harshly than white ones, in multiple ways, including sending more Black youth to adult courts.
Recently, I watched two different kinds of “life” films. One was a 2017 short produced and directed by Memphis’ Joann Selvidge and Sarah Fleming, called “Robert,” the story of a young man transferred to criminal court at 15.
The other was a documentary, released in June, and sent to me by a colleague at Al Jazeera, that was made for its Fault Lines series. “51 Years Behind Bars” explores how, in Tennessee, 16-year-old Almeer Nance was convicted of first-degree murder and, although he didn’t kill anyone, was sentenced to a minimum of 51 years in prison. A white girl also involved with the crime got one year.
The films encapsulate the damage that can be done when a child is viewed as disposable and irredeemable at 14 or 15 or 16 or 17. They reveal the flippant lack of humanity legislators can show when it comes to Black lives.
Most importantly, they reveal why paying attention to and taking action (voting) on positions like Juvenile Court judge and District Attorney is vitally important. And why this election matters.
Don’t dare laugh it off.
Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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