The Justice On Trial film festival grew out of a conversation between award-winning author Michelle Alexander and Susan Burton, founder of A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project.
During one of Prof. Alexander’s standing-room-only appearances in Los Angeles, Susan and Michelle bemoaned the widespread ignorance of America’s highly racialized mass incarceration system and the profound damage it does to so many.
Family and friends of people caught up in the burgeoning prison-industrial complex, often for victimless crimes, know only too well the pain and injustice—the jailhouse beatings, the solitary confinement, the stop-and-frisk humiliations, the selective prosecutions with bad plea bargains, and the unreasonably long sentences—that their loved ones suffer. They are painfully familiar with the school-to-prison pipeline that puts so many youth, particularly those of color, at risk. But their voices are often unheard beyond their own communities.
Susan’s and Michelle’s discussion led to a New York Times opinion piece about how to better expose this broken system for what it is. But Susan continued to wonder whether even more could be done to change public perceptions.
She didn’t wonder long. Instead, she got busy and recruited a team that put on the gloriously successful First Annual Justice on Trial Film Festival in 2013 at Loyola Marymount University, in conjunction with the Bellarmine Forum. Michelle Alexander packed the house on the festival’s first day, as did the Drug Policy Alliance’s Ethan Nadelman on the second night.
Last year, Long Beach State University served as the host campus of the Second Annual Justice on Trial Film Festival for a most successful event. Featuring keynote speakers Daryl Atkinson of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and Ruthie Gilmore of Critical Resistance, a stellar slate of films (Elementary Genocide, Crime After Crime, When Will the Punishment End) and panel discussions was capped by the Immigrant Detention and Deportation Forum, steered by Define American founder and filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas (“Documented”).
Under Susan’s direction, Tiffany Johnson and John McKenna of A New Way of Life formed this year’s team, partnering with festival host Mount Saint Mary’s University (Doheny Campus-downtown Los Angeles) for the Third Annual Justice on Trial Film Festival. Returning from the previous two years are Dick Price and Sharon Kyle from LA Progressive and Justice Not Jails. A New Way of Life’s Sofia Espinoza has taken on a key role this year as has festival organizer Angela Chung of Children’s Defense Fund—California.
Together this core team is reaching out to friends and colleagues to plan and present what is envisioned to be a most impactful Justice on Trial Film Festival. The aim is to spur deep-level reform of our criminal justice system, highlight the important work filmmakers have been doing in this arena and encourage media industry leaders in Los Angeles and elsewhere to begin offering criminal justice narratives both richer and more truthful than the typical “cops and robbers” fare reinforcing the existing broken system.