Though his name is in the title and incidents from his personal story are told, “True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight For Equality” is not really a biographical documentary.
Rather this coolly passionate film mostly deals with Stevenson’s thoughts rather than his life, providing an involving examination and analysis of the ideas (and ideals) that consume the man’s every waking moment.
A public interest lawyer who is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson tells us right off the bat that the phrase carved in stone on the U.S. Supreme Court building — Equal Justice Under Law — is way more than just words to him.
In addition, as an attorney gifted enough to have won the American Bar Association’s highest honor, Stevenson has argued before the court numerous times, winning his fifth case, Madison v. Alabama, earlier this year.
“The opposite of poverty,” he has said, “is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice.”
Stevenson’s devotion to equal justice made him a voice in Ava DuVernay’s impassioned 2016 doc “13th,” and this film, directed by Peter Kunhardt, Teddy Kunhardt and George Kunhardt, functions as a kind of companion piece to that work.
The Kunhardts are well-positioned to take on this story. Father Peter was the director of last year’s excellent “King in the Wilderness” documentary on Martin Luther King Jr.’s final years, and sons Teddy and George served as producers.
Though personal anecdotes are sparse here, “True Justice” starts with a potent one as Stevenson relates a childhood memory: he and his sister excitedly jumping into a motel swimming pool near Florida’s Walt Disney World.
“Chaos broke out,” he vividly remembers. “White parents hurriedly snatched their kids out of the pool. When we told our mother, she insisted we get back in the pool.
“What do you do with a memory like that?”
What Stevenson has done is mount a tireless campaign to, among other things, provide legal services to death row inmates, guilty or not.
Even after the civil rights advances of the 1960s, Stevenson was shocked to find that inside the South’s courtrooms little had changed.
“The judge was white, the jury was all white,” he says. “The only person of color was the person who was on trial.”
“Bryan is the work; it runs his life,” says Sia Sanneh, a senior attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative. “There is so much injustice, there is no room for anything else.”
A major component of Stevenson’s work is tenaciously taking on the cases of inmates unjustly convicted of murder, often finding a way to free them even if they have spent years on death row.
Key among these is Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent nearly 30 years on Alabama’s death row before being exonerated for crimes he did not commit.
Convictions like these, Stevenson maintains, are based on factors that push for guilty verdicts no matter where the facts point, including race, poverty, inadequate legal representation and prosecutorial indifference.
Beyond the specifics of the cases Stevenson has taken on, “True Justice” examines the attorney’s ideas concerning the societal factors that create injustice and what can be done to counteract them.
Stevenson talks passionately and persuasively about racial bias and the legacy of slavery in general and the horrors of lynching in particular; how the practice was implemented to terrify people.
“It was not secret, it wasn’t the Klan, people posed with the bodies, everyone was complicit,” he says.
“True Justice” ends with one of the most compelling of Stevenson’s projects, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., a monument movingly dedicated to the victims of lynching.
To overcome all these evils, Stevenson says, “we have to be willing to tell the truth.” “True Justice” is a step in that direction.
‘True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight For Equality’
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: Starts Friday, Laemmle Glendale; available June 26 on HBO