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Justice on film
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Roger Guenveur Smith on the set of Justice. He plays Carter, an ambitious lawyer out to change the way the criminal justice system treats African Americans. (Brandt Williams)
Two Minneapolis based civil rights lawyers are putting their views on America's criminal justice system on film. For the past five weeks, John Shulman and Jeanne Marie Almonor have been sharing directing duties for Justice, a drama about how the directors feel the criminal justice system treats African Americans.

St. Paul, Minn. — In a University of Minnesota law school classroom, a film crew sets up a shot.

In this scene from Justice, the movie's main character, Carter, talks to a room full of law students. Carter is an ambitious African American defense lawyer who is fed up with the system. It's a rehearsal, so the actors are saving their intensity for the when the cameras are rolling.

"Did you know that one in every 10 black men in America right now, today, between the ages of 25 and 29 is in prison? Did you know that?" asks Carter. "As opposed to one in 100 white men?"

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Image Director John Shulman

Carter tells the students, all played by extras, he believes the government is stacking America's jails with black men as a way to feed the growing prison industry. "I think that's extreme," he says. "I think that's extreme greed. I think it's extreme racism. What I'm looking for here are some volunteers to work for extreme justice."

"The scene today is an important scene because it explains how Carter, the civil rights lawyer in the movie obtains volunteers because he doesn't have a lot of money," says lawyer-turned-director John Shulman.

Shulman and Jeanne Marie Almonor wrote the screenplay. He is white. She is black. They've been married for over 10 years and have two children. Both share the belief that the criminal justice system is unfair to African Americans.

Shulman and Almonor have never made a film before. However, Almonor says the time was right for them to venture into new territory.

"We felt that we had something to communicate with a larger audience," she says. "And we thought making a film would probably be the best way to get some of these issues out so people can have a chance to have some discussion about them. And we feel that right now we haven't seen some of these viewpoints put forward."

Shulman and Almonor are longtime legal activists. They were the tag-team duo who represented the NAACP in a school desegregation lawsuit filed against the state in 1995. The two led confrontational demonstrations during Minneapolis school board meetings which rattled school board members.

Several meetings simply shut down. Their tactics were criticized for being over the top, however the suit was settled and now low-income public school children can choose to attend better-funded suburban schools. The couple have apparently brought that same dedication to this project.

We've put our hearts and souls into this movie.
- John Shulman

"We've put our hearts and souls into this movie," says Shulman. And according to Almonor, the shooting schedule called for 15-hour days and a few all-nighters.

The couple has also put some of their own money into the project; they wouldn't say how much. The film has a small budget of around $300,000. They are using a Twin Cities-based film crew, extras and actors. The extras are unpaid; the actors and crew are making far less than they would for a studio-backed picture.

"This is a serious piece of work," says Los Angeles-based actor Roger Guenveur Smith, who plays the lead character.

Smith has starred in several major motion pictures, like Do the Right Thing, Eve's Bayou and Panther. He has also written and acted in several productions for the stage, some of which he has performed in the Twin Cities.

Smith's character is trying to change the system by telling the black men he represents that he will not plea bargain their cases.

"What specifically frustrates him is the plea bargaining system, which forces any number of his clients, his state-appointed clients to plead guilty to things they quite frequently didn't do," he says.

Filming wrapped up this week. Justice will now go into the editing process, frequently the most lengthy part of filmmaking. Shulman and Almonor say they hope to have the film completed by the end of this year. They have no plans yet for where the film will be shown, but are seeking the widest possible distribution.

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