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Review: ‘Lovely Jackson’ Is a View Inside a Wrongful Conviction

Review: ‘Lovely Jackson’ Is a View Inside a Wrongful Conviction

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Lovely Jackson is a contemporary documentary of injustice that spans American history of the criminal justice system. There have been many stories in which people were wrongly convicted and sentenced to life in prison or sent to death row. Sadly, many of these stories are never told and rarely get the justice they so rightly deserve. Lovely Jackson is an important film that explores one man’s journey from an innocent young teen, to a convicted adult, to an elder with love and compassion for the future.

Director Matt Waldeck (director of I See You) along with co-writer/co-producer Ricky Jackson have come together to reveal the grim realities of the system. The documentary Lovely Jackson, coming in at an hour and forty-four minutes, is an exemplary illustration of how the U.S. criminal justice system has failed so many people, but perhaps mostly people of color. Thankfully, Rickey Jackson was finally exonerated after serving 39 years for a murder he did not commit.

Reenacting essential moments in the film from Jackson’s life are younger actors to help audiences get into the headspace of what it was like for him in these moments. Mario Beverly, who plays Young Rickey Jackson, brings an outstanding performance. While no reenactment is without its flaws, this one comes pretty close to making audiences feel a sense of real fear in the prison scenes.

In May 1975, a money order collector Harold J. Franks was shot and killed during a robbery at a local convenience store in Cleveland, Ohio. Jackson’s sentencing was 39 years, and it is said to be one of the longest prison sentences anyone who has been wrongfully accused and convicted has ever served. The prosecution’s witness was Edward Vernon, and they wanted the case wrapped up, so they needed Jackson to be the shooter. The prosecution used evidence of a .38 caliber gun that was used. They were never able to connect it to Jackson but still insisted he did the crime. Jackson was sentenced to death in December 1975. For many of the years since then, Jackson pleaded his innocence but had accepted the harsh reality that he would probably be executed before he was freed. His original sentence was suspended, and he spent 39 years in prison.

When the film first opens, there are brief but powerful monologues of ex-inmates speaking about their past experiences, all being wrongly sentenced to prison for crimes they did not commit. Each one talks about how they made it through their sentence by knowing Jackson and mirroring his stoicism in the face of injustice and wrongful sentencing. One of the most creative touches in the film is the dramatized reenactments and reactions. These frames, black and white and with  Jackson himself performing his interior monologues, are used to underscore the emotional impact of each event and each sentence that was passed down to him. While the reactions are silent, it does not lessen the overall weight of the burden he must have endured.  

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One of the questions Jackson tackles is, “Why?” Throughout the documentary, this question is better understood and a lot of answers come from those who pegged Jackson as the culprit. Ed Vernon, who claimed he saw Jackson and his two friends (the Bridgeman brothers) commit the murder, offered testimony that was used to lock up Jackson. These claims are said to be invalid and full of contradictions early on in the documentary but are quickly dismissed.

On a hopeful note that the film brings up with such vigor is the Ohio Innocence Project and all those involved in helping Jackson achieve his freedom. This program has helped Jackson and countless others with the services they needed for a more fair and balanced trial. The organization has brought up evidence that was dismissed in the original case. For example, Karen Smith, the only person who actually witnessed the murder, was never called on to contradict Vernon’s testimony. In the documentary, this unfairness was corrected, and the scales of justice were balanced with new evidence.  

If there are concerns about the film, it would be this: the abundance of facts and the nightmare of what occurs in the prison setting are unnerving. The specific and detailed descriptions that are offered as to the precise procedures are hard to watch and hear. Jackson’s story encompasses violent and bloody brawls, understanding how prison hierarchies work among inmates, letting go of his emotional connections, and hardening himself in order to survive the labyrinth of prison life. One notable example that is discussed at some length is what occurs before and after one is placed in the electric chair. This amount of information is disturbing and almost too gruesome to want to continue to listen to the other horrible facts of the case.

Lovely Jackson has a more than positive end message for a seemly bleak and unnerving beginning. The experiences of one man and his message of resilience, forgiveness, and strength in the face of an imaginable burden proves to everyone that no one is lost, even in a world that seems to forget about them.

Lovely Jackson was presented at the Justice Film Festival on March 4, 2023, which marked its New York premiere. It is available for streaming on the Roku Channel. 

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