‘The Unforgivable’ gives white audiences a preview into prejudiced justice system

REVIEW: "The Unforgivable" is a gritty, gripping portrayal of a woman in crisis and an indictment of how we don’t give formerly incarcerated people a real chance to move on with their lives

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When people are released from prison are they really released? After they’ve paid their debt to society, are they given a chance to move on or are they forever marked as someone who made a mistake?

Are they forever someone who must check a box indicating they’re a ‘felon’ whenever they apply for a job, thus preventing them from getting most jobs—which often pushes them to the edges of society and heightens the chance that they’ll go into crime and re-offend in order to get by? When you get out of prison do you remain unforgivable?

In most cases, yes, which is a tragic flaw of our society and our justice system because most people who are in prison will one day get out. The way America does things, we are sentencing former incarcerated people to not just to a term in prison but to an entire life of hell. This is not because we think that will reduce crime, it’s because the criminal justice system has a profit motive and people are the products it needs to make money. Once it’s captured you in it’s grip, it seeks to never let go.

THE UNFORGIVABLE. (L-R) SANDRA BULLOCK (PRODUCER) as RUTH SLATER, ROB MORGAN as VINCENT CROSS. (CR. COURTESY OF NETFLIX)

All of this represents some of the undercurrent of Sandra Bullock’s powerful new Netflix film, The Unforgivable, where Bullock stars as a woman who’s just been released after a long prison bid. She’s trying to put her life back together but it’s hard because no one will let her forget that she’s a felon. Society will not forgive. The movie co-stars two of the most extraordinary actors of this era—the incomparable Viola Davis and your favorite actor’s favorite actor Rob Morgan—and the film gives us some powerful scenes where Bullock  goes toe to toe with each of them.

Surely, the movie lays it on a bit thick—Bullock’s Ruth Slater is convicted of murdering a police officer but not just any officer, it’s an older chief who knows her personally and is trying to be nice to her during a very difficult situation. Slater is in the process of being evicted from her home and the chief is trying to be diplomatic and lighten the blow—he gently offers to let Slater and her young daughter come stay with him in his home after the eviction is done. But in the chaos of fighting to evict the unwilling Slaters, he gets shot in the chest.

The film shows Slater, post-prison, living on the edge of society, struggling to find work and to get respect from the people around her and to deal with people who want to take revenge on her. I couldn’t help but thinking about how this white woman was living through a situation that Black men and women go through all the time—because there are far too many of us in the criminal justice system—and if post-prison life was this hard for a white woman, imagine how hard it is for those of us who don’t have the benefit of white privilege. 

THE UNFORGIVABLE: SANDRA BULLOCK (PRODUCER) as RUTH SLATER. (CR: KIMBERLEY FRENCH/NETFLIX)

We watch Slater scream back at the world for treating her like crap and then learn that we have it wrong—it turns out that she’s a great sister who does an amazingly selfless thing, but you have to watch the film to understand what I’m talking about here. But that made me think about how Bullock is someone with two Black children and I think most of us who are raising Black children are worried about what could happen when our kids encounter a police officer.

They could be murdered on the street like Tamir Rice, they could be shot in a store like John Crawford, they could be arrested and thrown into the byzantine jail system like Kalief Browder. I could go on—we all know that ‘Breathing While Black’ can lead to death. Just because your mother is a famous white woman does not mean you’re protected from every cop in the city.

So when I interviewed Bullock at the virtual junket for The Unforgivable, I asked her about how her feelings and her fears about her Black kids informed this film about life after the criminal justice system. She was really open and candid in saying yes, that was definitely part of her thought process in making this film. Her answer was a powerful window into how she’s raising her kids and the ways that she talks to them about race and racism.

One thing I fear when I see Black kids being raised by two white parents is that the parents may not know what to say about race and racism, and they may end up creating a race-averse household where they don’t talk about race much, if at all. Race-averse households are damaging to the psyche of Black children because race will eventually become part of their world and their consciousness. If they don’t learn how to think about it and how to understand it when they’re at home, then they’ll be intellectually malnourished when they grow up and it’s in their face.

Children who grow up in race-aware households tend to be more well-adjusted about this issue. Bullock confirmed for me that she’s raising her kids in a race-aware household where they talk openly and honestly about how the world will perceive Black people.

The Unforgivable is a gritty, gripping portrayal of a woman in crisis and an indictment of how we don’t give formerly incarcerated people a real chance to move on with their lives. In a world where we lock up millions of people, most of them for non-violent offenses, we must find a more compassionate approach to how we deal with them after they’re released. 

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