Just Mercy Discussion Guide - Define American

Just Mercy Discussion Guide

Our democracy hangs in the balance. This is not an overstatement...The days of pretending that tinkering with our criminal injustice system will ‘fix it’ are over. The system is not broken; it is functioning according to its design.

Michelle Alexander, New York Times, June 8, 2020

Since its founding, Define American has believed that immigration is a racial justice issue and has endeavoured to uplift those stories; for examples: Undocumented and Black in America, Black Lives Matter: How a Hashtag Defined a Movement, LA Made: Tobore Oweh and more.

Today, we continue this work by partnering with Just Mercy, a film that presents a moving narrative of deeply ingrained racism in the American South. Anti-Blackness in the U.S. isn’t limited to the communities portrayed in the film, but is widespread throughout our country—with devastating consequences. The purpose of this guide is to connect the experiences of immigrant communities to those of Black people in shared struggles, hopes, and interactions within communities to increase awareness and serve as a starting point for defeating racism nationwide.

Download the Guide

Discussion Questions

  1. What did you learn about the lives of incarcerated people by watching Just Mercy? How is mass incarceration similar to mass detention of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today? The U.S. has the largest imprisoned population in the world, in terms of both of people in prison (2,172,800) and non-citizens in immigrant detention centers (39,322).
    Sources: Bureau of Justice Statistics and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
  2. When Walter McMillian first meets Bryan Stevenson, he says that black people in the South experience a world where they are “guilty from the moment [they] are born.” What does he mean by this? Are there any similar phrases you’ve heard within your own community?
  3. What moments or conversations struck you as particularly important to understanding the criminal justice system? Do you recognize biases in the criminal justice system? Are there similar racial biases in the US immigration system? For example, while black immigrants comprise just 5.4% of the undocumented population in the US, they are detained and deported at a higher rate (10.6%) than any other ethnic group.
    Black Alliance for Just Immigration and NYU School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic
  4. When Bryan visits Walter’s family, they explain the toll Walter’s incarceration has taken on his community: “We feel like they put us all on death row, too.” What did you observe about the ways Walter’s incarceration affected his family and community?
  5. Bryan says, “The opposite of poverty is not wealth, it’s justice.” Walter was both poor and black. Do you think his story would have played out the same if he had been wealthy and white? How does the race of the victim factor into decisions about sentencing?
  6. When Bryan first arrives at Holman prison, he observes prisoners laboring in the fields. Free prison labor and the incarcerated workforce have long been compared to modern-day slavery. Have you seen instances in your community where someone has profited from the free or reduced wage labor of immigrants?
  7. At the end of the film, we learn that Walter was tried by a nearly all-white jury. In what ways did denying Walter’s constitutional right to a jury made up of his peers threaten the reliability of his conviction? How does this relate to what you’ve heard about detention hearings and lack of legal representation for immigrants who are detained?
  8. How is Bryan affected by racism despite his level of education? Do you see parallels in your own community?
  9. The only Latina character in the film was a guard on death row in Holman prison. How have immigrant communities been complicit in maintaining the mass incarceration system?
  10. In what ways did the film expand your understanding of mercy? How might you extend mercy, especially to those who are most vulnerable in society, in your own life and everyday interactions?
  11. In the film, Walter isn’t extended many of the rights we are taught to expect as Americans. What does it mean to be “American” and do you think Walter would be considered American?