If you listen closely over the howl of the “canceled,” bemoaning accountability for whatever racism/sexism/queerphobic Molotov cocktail they casually tossed, you can hear stories like Rickey Jackson’s. He was imprisoned for almost four full decades for something he didn’t do. “Lovely Jackson” is an admirable attempt to elevate much needed discourse. Through reflections, reenactments, and recollections that often feel like spoken word poetry, the film aims to move Rickey from an example of systemic cruelty to a real-life person.

Because, to be clear, everyone knows America’s criminal justice strategy is to be criminally unjust. Educating with a barrage of facts has become as useless as pointing out political hypocrisy. Statistics have their use, and calling those with pants afire out for their incendiary lies can be fun. But if we’re being honest, if we’re being real real, persuasion is now a game of reminding certain people what empathy feels like.

Director Matt Waldeck’s “Lovely Jackson,” which credits Rickey as a writer, legitimately tries to drop audiences inside the wrongly incarcerated man. From the scene of the shooting at a shop to death row meditations, Waldeck uses a host of effects and devices to make the events feel as frontline as possible. None are more effective than just letting Rickey speak.

The first hour is mostly that: Rickey talking through how an innocent person gets up every morning in a cage and survives. He had no visitors. Ever. He recalls his mother’s death with the sterility of finding out the car payment is late: It’s troubling, but more of a hassle than anything. That he endured four decades is stunning. That he did so without becoming what the world unfairly saw him as, what his surroundings tried to mold him into, makes this man some kind of hero.

The second half gets into what some true crimers lust after: An innocence project peels back the case to reveal it has literally one piece of evidence: A teenager’s confession. Bullied by police, that boy carried his deceitful sin into adulthood. Until a preacher convinced him to unburden his soul and unlock Rickey’s cell door. It is true insanity, literal madness, to move a human onto death row based on any single piece of evidence, let alone a witness statement.

Watching Rickey forgive his false accuser ranks among the most powerful scenes in any documentary ever made. It is a level of kindness and compassion that exists beyond comprehension. He can, and does, explain how the life he’s built outside of prison enabled him to let go of the past. He points to his wife, to his miracle daughter, as the catalyst for offering absolution. He could talk for days, and it would still never make “sense” to most of us.

“Lovely Jackson” doesn’t get too deep into broader issues, choosing to keep laser focused on Rickey. The problem is, Rickey’s Messianic ability to forgive may send the wrong message. It may convince some viewers that “justice was done in the end,” and his lack of fury may deescalate the urgency of prison reform. It’s not “okay” because Rickey is now okay. This is grotesque. This is horror. This is the worst of which humanity is capable. “Lovely Jackson” is, perhaps, a bit too lovely. It is, perhaps, a bit too taken by the notion of forgiveness. But it is absolutely vital for all of us to spend some time with Rickey and turn statistics back into people again.

Grade = A-

Other Critical Voices to Consider

Jared Mobarek at The Film Stage says “More than just a documentary detailing the circumstances surrounding Rickey Jackson’s 1975 conviction for a murder he did not commit, Matt Waldeck’s ‘Lovely Jackson’ is a memoir granting its subject ability to exorcize his demons through a first-hand, in-his-own-words reckoning with the experience. “

Carla Hay at Culture Mix says  the film is “an example of a true crime movie that not only shines a light on a tragic failure in the U.S. criminal justice system but also offers a beacon of hope for people who are seeking justice.”

Dwight Brown at Dwight Brown Ink says “Curiously, the filmmakers use of dramatizations neither helps nor hinders. The most riveting part of this doc is Jackson himself. His metamorphosis from innocent kid to, young adult convict, to sage older man is a wonder.”

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