Story and photos by Heidi Baumstark

Four days of films. A dream for any movie lover. That’s what the Middleburg Film Festival offers—a four-day circuit of films enticing audiences to the picturesque Middleburg village. 

This year marks the seventh annual festival that spread out from October 17-20,  lifting the curtain on over 30 films shown in four venues in town: Salamander Resort & Spa, The Hill School, National Sporting Library & Museum, and Middleburg Community Center. Some films concluded with thought-provoking Q and A fire-side chats with actors, producers, cinematographers, film critics, and other special guests revealing secrets behind the scenes. Other spotlights included a concert, tastings at neighboring vineyards, plus farm-to-table dinners and parties. 

Sheila Johnson, founder of the annual Middleburg Film Festival, owns Salamander Resort & Spa, which not only was one of the film settings, but offered resort accommodations to those traveling. In a short time, the festival has gained a reputation for its elegant feel, creative programming, attracting audiences far and wide.

The Warner Brother’s film, Just Mercy, was shown at The Hill School’s Sheila C. Johnson Performing Arts Center. Chatting with movie goers before the film, Chris McLaughlin said she has been coming to the annual festival since 2017. “A friend of mine told me about it, and this is my third festival,” she said. “I’m a retired reading specialist and love to read, love stories and movies.”

Benjamin Price, a 14-year-old freshman from West Potomac High School in Alexandria, waited in line to see Just Mercy. “We read the book for English class and did a unit on it, so I wanted to see the movie.” He is a freelance writer for Kid’s First, a kid’s movie review on YouTube. 

Allison Johnson of Washington, D.C. came with her daughter, Tatiana. Allison said, “This is the first time I’ve come to the festival. I’ve actually seen several friends today; some we knew were coming and some, a surprise.”

Just Mercy is based on Bryan Stevenson’s book that includes true accounts of people he has helped in his fight for justice; the film’s release date is Dec. 25, 2019. Actor Michael B. Jordan plays Stevenson, a black lawyer who helps wrongfully convicted felons on death row. One of them is Walter (“Johnnie D.”) McMillian accused of murdering 18-year-old Ronda Morrison, a white girl, outside of the Jackson Cleaners in Monroeville, Alabama (Monroe County) on Nov. 1, 1986. 

The film’s opening scene begins in 1987 in Monroe, Alabama. Stevenson, who is still in law school at Harvard in 1987, visits Johnnie D. on death row in an Alabama prison. Motivated to make a difference after seeing so much injustice in his own family, Stevenson said to Johnnie D. during his visit, “I know what it’s like to be in the shadows; that’s why I’m doing this.”  

In 1989, Stevenson earned his law degree and leaves his parent’s home in Delaware and travels to Alabama to head up a legal aid firm called Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). He gets help from a young white woman activist named Eva Ansley (played by Brie Larson) who remains committed in fighting for justice. 

Throughout the movie, Stevenson visits Johnnie D. in prison. At one point, Stevenson tells him, “Whatever you did, your life is still meaningful.” Johnnie D.’s wife, Minnie (played by Karan Kendrick), stands by her husband; she and their three children get support from the community, hoping this young lawyer—Stevenson—can do something to help. Minnie knows her husband is innocent of murder, though she does know he is guilty of having a relationship with a white woman prior to his conviction. But he’s not a murderer. Through it all, Minnie stands by her husband, displaying a blend of strength and grace. “He’s still the father of my children,” she says. 

During a court scene when Stevenson is trying to get a new trial for Johnnie D. because of false eyewitness accounts that came to light, Stevenson says, “It’s never too late for justice.” A clip from 60 Minutes shows a newscaster saying, “It’s now in the hands of Alabama’s Supreme Court to see if McMillian is entitled to a new trial.” 

On March 2, 1993—seven years after the crime—there was a public hearing and the Alabama Supreme Court dismissed all charges. Johnnie D. is shown leaving his cell block, with the hands of inmates reaching out through narrow slots to shake hands with Johnnie D. Stevenson’s voice in the background is heard: “For change, we need conviction in our hearts.” 

He returns home to a big “Welcome Home Johnnie D.” banner with Minnie and their children, and other family and friends, welcoming him home. Stevenson’s narration in the background says: “We can change this world for the better. We all need justice and we all need mercy; some measure of
unmerited grace.”

At the end of the movie, shots of the real characters were shown, including Johnnie D. who died in 2013 from early on-set dementia and Eva Ansley who worked hard to help Stevenson create EJI. 

After the film, actress Karan Kendrick spoke in a Q and A hosted by Clayton Davis, film critic of the Awards Circuit.  “When I auditioned for the part, I felt a connection with Minnie’s character. It was a whole new journey when I was told I got the part. I read and reread the book. There is a grace with how Bryan handles his work. I’m still not convinced he’s human,” said Kendrick.

“This is just one of the stories in Stevenson’s book; there are many others. It shows that kindness is still important. He’s fighting for justice and wants people to know there’s still hope. He is so committed to the work at EJI,” she added.

The film also addresses the impact of incarceration on families and how women and children are affected. “This is Minnie’s story, too—how she was affected by her husband’s incarceration. I’ve learned that the real Minnie recently saw the film and she is very pleased. She chose to love Johnnie D. and stand by him even though he committed several marital indiscretions before his incarceration.” 

Since the film, Kendrick has visited a family member in prison who she hadn’t seen in years. “I wanted to visit, look him eye-to-eye, and to see him as a person.”  Kendrick ended with a reflection: “Everyone can do something. What is ‘your’ something?”

Walking out of the theater, Allison Johnson said, “It’s powerful that Middleburg is hosting these films. It’s a chance to be part of Hollywood. I commend the town for its efforts in hosting this festival.” ML

This article first appeared in the November 2019 issue of Middleburg Life.