True Justice: Bryan Stevenson's Fight for Equality

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media
True Justice: Bryan Stevenson's Fight for Equality Movie Poster Image
Excellent docu about remarkable attorney; language, violence
  • NR
  • 2019
  • 102 minutes

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Positive Messages

There's a history of the cruelty of white people against Blacks that hides in silence in this country. We are haunted in America by our history of racial inequality based on a belief that Black people aren't fully human. Like South Africa after apartheid, America needs a truth and reconciliation process to heal racial wounds but that requires that Americans first admit wrongdoing.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Stevenson has seemingly sacrificed his life to help unjustly accused people be removed from  death row, and also guilty people who received unfair trials or were sentenced improperly, including juveniles, the disabled, and mentally impaired.


The history of white American treatment of Black people in this country includes enslavement, lynchings, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and over-ambitious incarceration of Black citizens. Photos of lynchings, approving mobs, and hanging bodies are shown. Stevenson recalls that in 1971, white parents in Florida yanked their kids out of a hotel swimming pool that Bryan and his sister had just entered. When he asked a parent what was wrong, the parent said, "You're wrong," and called him the "N" word. Stevenson recalls having to call a client on death row to inform him that his legal efforts couldn't stop the execution from going forward. Students collect soil samples from the sites of lynchings and put them in jars labeled with victims' names, to be displayed in Montgomery's Legacy Museum as a reminder of brutality against Black people. References are made to rape charges.



There's repeated use by adults and kids of the "N" word.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Stevenson suggests that downtrodden Black citizens turn to illegal drugs and crime to make a living in a world where better, legitimate ways of making money are closed off to them.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that True Justice: Bryan Stevenson's Fight for Equality is a 2019 HBO documentary about a Black attorney who fights for the rights of Black defendants mistreated by the American justice system. His story is also told in the 2019 release Just Mercy, featuring Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson. Stevenson narrates stories about innocent Black defendants, one imprisoned and charged with murder, without evidence, and held for 30 years until the efforts of Stevenson and his team were able to free him. From there, Stevenson shows how a history of enslavement, lynchings, Jim Crow policies, segregation, and other indignities have created a false narrative of white superiority over Black people that many accept as true. Language includes the "N" word. The movie describes and lingers on disturbing images of lynchings that legal authorities in the U.S. turned a blind eye to as late as 1933. Stevenson suggests that downtrodden Black citizens turn to illegal drugs and crime to make a living in a world where better, legitimate ways of making money are closed off to them.

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What's the story?

TRUE JUSTICE: BRYAN STEVENSON'S FIGHT FOR EQUALITY moves deliberately from the specific to the general, beginning with provable injustices imposed on specific innocent defendants and widening its scope to show how those individuals are victims of a larger American failure that dates back to brutalities of slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and continuing racial bias. The U.S. Supreme Court has sided with Montgomery, Alabama, attorney Stevenson in several such cases, allowing new trials for railroaded defendants in states Stevenson refers to as "the death belt," for their tendency to sentence defendants to the death penalty. Many Black people arrested without cause and insufficient evidence are doomed. The assumption is that in the South prosecutors, judges, and juries are largely if not entirely white, and the presumption of innocence as required by law isn't strictly adhered to. The documentary notes that those who kill white people are 11 times more likely to receive the death penalty than those who kill Black people.

Is it any good?

This is an important and moving documentary. True Justice: Bryan Stevenson's Fight for Equality lays out the historic scar on America that began with enslavement and went on through lynchings, oppressive Jim Crow laws, segregation, and other brutal and discriminatory policies. Attorney Bryan Stevenson is the perfect spokesman for this cause, radiating compassion and decency as he eloquently compares the history of slavery with the brutality of South Africa's apartheid, the Rwandan government's genocide policies, and Nazi Germany's efforts to wipe out European Jewry. He argues that unlike the other countries that have admitted their mistakes, America still glorifies a narrative of the great old days of the South. In Germany, he points out, sites of abductions of Jewish families are publicly marked, and laws require remembrance of that government's wrong-doing, policies that helped that country heal. In the United States, he suggests, where only recently the proliferation of Confederate monuments has been questioned, civil rights activists won the legal battle, but the narrative battle was won by those allowed to hold on to the view that there are differences between Black people and white people. 

The directing team of veteran documentary maker Peter Kunhardt and his filmmaking sons George and Teddy have together worked on wide-ranging projects including the PBS show Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the documentary John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls. They bring experience, talent, and restraint to this necessary project, one that would be a vital addition to every teen's understanding of continuing inequality in this country today.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why Stevenson's work is important. What are some arguments Stevenson makes about how history has shaped our racial views today? Do you agree or disagree with them?

  • How much did you know about slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow laws, and segregation before viewing True Justice: Bryan Stevenson's Fight for Equality? What did you learn? How could you learn more?

  • Do you believe there's a connection between the privatization of prisons and the growing number of prisoners in them? Why might profitability be a factor in the growing American prison population?

  • In what ways is Bryan Stevenson a role model? What character strengths does he embody?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love African American stories

Character Strengths

Find more movies that help kids build character.

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