The film’s title, Lovely Jackson, may be somewhat misleading. This is not some idyllic documentary about attaining the American dream. Rather, it is more a jarring reminder of the American nightmare that confronts too many American Blacks.
The film’s focus is Rickey Jackson, who spent 39 years in an Ohio prison — some of it on death row — for a crime he didn’t commit before he was exonerated. Jackson’s time spent in jail holds the record for the longest prison term ever for an exonerated defendant in U.S. history.
There wasn’t much “lovely” about Jackson’s life then. But after being released from prison in 2014, he has found at least some solace in his senior years. He got married, and the couple later had a baby daughter. Her name is Lovely Jackson, and hence the title.
Lovely Jackson, directed by Matt Waldeck, kicks off the 18th Montreal International Black Film Festival (MIBFF) Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Imperial Cinema. Running until Sept. 25, the fest features 95 films from 25 countries, including 12 world premières and 10 international premières — including Lovely Jackson in the latter category.
Also of note is the Quebec première on Thursday of the much talked-about Kaepernick & America documentary, dealing with the American star quarterback and civil-rights activist Colin Kaepernick who has effectively been kept off the pro gridiron — banished, more likely — by the NFL powers-that-be since taking a knee in 2016 during the national anthem at an NFL game in protesting police brutality and racism in the U.S.
Among the many notables whose work can be caught in this week’s MIBFF program are the late Sidney Poitier, Danny Glover, Lou Gossett Jr., Jennifer Holness, Orlando Jones and Chantel Riley.
Jackson and Waldeck — both also credited as the doc’s co-writers — will be on hand for Lovely Jackson’s Tuesday screening and will be conducting a Q&A following.
“It was the fact that I knew I was innocent that just kept me going,” Jackson, 65, says in a conference call with Waldeck. “Even if I had died on death row, I felt that I would be exonerated in the next life — and I’m not a religious person. Fortunately, it didn’t turn out that way for me.”
Credit Waldeck not just for bringing Jackson’s case out in the open but for masterfully re-enacting his early story.
“I first read about Rickey’s story in 2016 when he got his first settlement from the state of Ohio,” Waldeck recalls. “I couldn’t believe it — to hear about someone who shouldn’t have been in jail to be there longer than any anyone else had. I knew then I had to pursue Rickey’s story.”
The fact that Jackson ever got arrested at 18 in 1976 in Cleveland boggles the mind. He and two friends were charged with killing money-order salesman Harold Franks outside a convenience store. They were accused of putting acid on his face, clubbing him, shooting him and then stealing $425.
But there was no evidence, no murder weapon. Jackson and his friends insisted they were elsewhere at the time. Plus, a woman who witnessed the crime told authorities Jackson and his friends weren’t the perpetrators. But police coerced a statement from a frightened 12-year-old newspaper delivery boy, Eddie Vernon, despite the fact he couldn’t pick them out in a lineup and that his classmates reported he was nowhere near the crime scene at the time. Regardless, Vernon told police Jackson was the one who fired the gun, thus sparing his two friends on the murder charge.
So Jackson was sentenced to die in the electric chair, but that was later reduced to life in prison after capital punishment was deemed unconstitutional in Ohio.
It took over three decades for lawyers to learn about his case and try to overturn his sentence. But it took more of a miracle when Vernon recanted his testimony. And so Jackson was released 39 years later and received a seemingly paltry sum of $1 million for the loss of much of his life.
“Let’s just say the relationships between the Black community and the police department were very much strained then as they are today,” Jackson understates. “Sadly, this is nothing new. It was just a lot cheaper and more convenient to get a case like this done quickly.”
Jackson is quick to acknowledge that he was lucky to get out even when he did, that there are so many other innocents stuck in the system without people in their corners.
“The miracle started for me when the Ohio Supreme Court struck down the death penalty, which allowed me to live and to transition from death row to general population, even with an indefinite life sentence,” says Jackson, while noting he still had to live by his mitts and wits in dealing with some combative fellow inmates.
Apart from tending to his family, Jackson has become quite involved in the prison-reform movement and Innocence Projects in Ohio and around the country.
“Through my work and that of so many others, we’ve managed to get a lot of legislation changed,” Jackson says. “People are now approaching these cases in a different vein.”
It’s a start Jackson concedes, but there’s still a very long way to go.
AT A GLANCE: The 18th Montreal International Black Film Festival starts Tuesday and runs until Sept. 25. For complete schedule, pricing and venue information, go to montrealblackfilm.com
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