Read on to learn about the real-life figures beyond the films and the transformational impact they had on wider society.
Just Mercy follows defence attorney Bryan Stevenson as he dedicates his life to fighting injustice for those on death row. The film focuses on one of Stevenson’s first cases, Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx) who is accused of murdering an 18-year-old girl, despite substantial evidence proving his innocence. In the fight to free McMillan from impending execution by lethal injection, Stevenson must navigate what seems like insurmountable legal and racial challenges.
Beyond the film:
Since helping Walter McMillan avoid the death penalty in 1987, Stevenson and his staff have gone on to help over 135 wrongly condemned death row prisoners by winning reversals, relief, or release from prison. He has established the Equal Justice Initiative, which has eliminated excessive and unfair sentencing, aided children prosecuted as adults, and confronted abuse of the incarcerated and mentally ill. Alongside his legal endeavours, Stevenson has initiated major new anti-poverty and anti-discrimination efforts by leading the creation of The Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which chronicle the legacy of slavery, lynching, and racial segregation.
Watch Just Mercy here to see how such a world-renowned civil rights activist with a dedication to fighting injustice first began his career.
Before 1946, the racial divide was prevalent in every area of life, but in 1946, the Brooklyn Dodgers manager, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) signed Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team – he was the first black man to cross Major League Baseball’s infamous colour line. The decision was pivotal but controversial and 42 depicts the effects on both Robinson and Rickey. Robinson faced racist slander on and off the field and Rickey was confronted with a discordant team. Yet through the courage of the two men, the path for other black baseballers to play in the Major League was set. Robinson and Rickey’s stand against racial injustice not only changed the game of baseball but went on to transform society.
Beyond the film:
In his first year with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson was named National League Rookie of the Year and in 1949 he became National League’s Most Valuable Player with a .342 batting average. He helped lead the Brooklyn Dodgers to six pennants and one World Series Championship and in 1962 he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Outside of baseball, Jackie was dedicated to improving the quality of life for African-Americans and wider society, establishing the Jackie Robinson Construction Company to build housing for low-income families.
42 tells the story of how an important racial divide in baseball was overcome through the courage of Robinson and Rickey and how the legacy of Jackie Robinson would transcend baseball and transform society. Watch it here.
Based on real-life events, Invictus portrays how Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) and Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), captain of the Springboks, the South African national rugby team, used rugby as a vehicle to unite the nation. Traditionally seen as a ‘white’ Afrikaner sport, rugby was associated with apartheid and hence most black South Africans would cheer for the opposition. However, through leading by example and daring to challenge societal norms, both Mandela and Pienaar brought South Africans together, dismantling preconceptions of race, and altering the future of the country.
Beyond the film:
Pienaar’s career started in 1989 where he played over 100 games for Transvaal, with 89 of those being as captain. In 1993, Pienaar was enlisted as captain of the struggling Springboks and over that year the team won against Argentina, Scotland and Wales. Despite being the underdogs, Pienaar successfully led the team to victory at the 1995 World Cup.
Nelson Mandela is renowned for his pivotal role in the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. During this time, he spent 27 years in prison but later in his life he went on to become the first black head of state from 1994-1999. It is during the infancy of Mandela’s presidency, when racial ties were still fraught, that the story of Invictus is set.
The two men remained close with Mandela attending Pienaar’s wedding and becoming godfather of his two sons. This year is the 10th anniversary of Mandela’s passing and there is no doubt that his legacy and the partnership he forged with Pienaar during the 1995 World Cup will live on far into the future. Watch Invictus here.
Greased Lightning is loosely based on the life of Wendell Scott (Richard Pryor), the first African-American to compete and win the NASCAR Sportsman Championship (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing).
Beyond the film:
Scott’s debut stock-car race was in 1952, where he competed as the first ever black man in his old Ford as a marketing promoter for Dixie Circuit. Although often strapped for cash, having spent 3 years as a motor pool mechanic during WW2, and having previously owned an auto repair shop, Scott was able to successfully compete against wealthier and better-resourced teams. Over his career he won hundreds of short-track races, and in 1960, won the Virginia NASCAR Sportsman Championship. He went on to compete in the NASCAR Premier Series, finishing with a career-best of sixth in 1966.
During his career Scott faced numerous counts of racism. He was taunted and insulted by both fellow competitors and spectators, he was prevented from competing in some races because of his skin colour and he wasn’t even given the official trophy upon winning at Speedway Park in Jacksonville in 1963.
Scott’s dedication to racing and ability to utilise his skills and resources to compete against the best in the field was inspiring. Yet it was his benevolent and resilient demeanor despite the prejudice and racism he faced that was pivotal in significantly altering the landscape of stock-car racing for generations to come. Watch it here.
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