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Attorney and Northford resident John Gesmonde portrays a civil rights lawyer in a powerful new film, Justice on Trial: The Movie, in which he fights the U.S. Department of Justice for reparations to disrupt systemic, unfair issues faced by black Americans. The film’s virtual world premiere on Saturday, July 4 will include distribution on Amazon Prime. (Photo by Cynthia Lang )
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A powerful new film, Justice on Trial: The Movie will feature local attorney John Gesmonde as a civil rights lawyer fighting for reparations to disrupt systemic, unfair issues facing black Americans. The film’s virtual world premiere on Saturday, July 4 will include distribution on Amazon Prime.
A Northford resident, John practices law from his offices in Hamden and has served as North Branford’s town attorney during several past administrations, with his most recent term of service as town counsel in 2013 to 2015.
For John, playing this role is the opportunity of a lifetime as he hopes it will support the very important mission of the film. Justice on Trial got its start as an acclaimed stage play written by Chad Lawson Cooper. It’s story stretches back to the consequences of an America built on slavery and its heritage of racial terror, segregation, and discrimination.
As Gesmonde notes, “Cooper pushes us to discover a better truth and, thereby, a better America by brilliantly mixing and matching documentary and fiction formats, blending a historical and existing narrative with real and re-created figures. To this end, he summons time-traveler witnesses—Harriet Tubman, Emmett Till, and Medgar Evers—to testify in a lawsuit brought by the African American people of the United States against the United States Department of Justice for reparations. He successfully creates a hybrid imaginative reality…an alternate present.”
John says its important to note what’s being discussed within the term “reparations.”
“This movie is about reparations, but reparations to repair this country by infusing additional monies into those areas that have bred the discontent and the disadvantage for black folks for many years,” says John, pointing to areas such as housing options, inferior public education, lack of access to medical care, red-lining of home ownership and loans, inequitable bank loans, “and then just the daily degradation that they go through that a white person really can’t understand because they don’t experience that,” he adds.
He also notes the original movie premiere date was delayed by COVID-19, a virus that has since been found to disproportionately affect the black community. And now, touched off by the unimaginable May 25 death of George Floyd caused by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the country has entered into a time of powerful protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
These latest experiences further underscore the message of the movie, says John.
“Although it has to go back and show the inhumanity that black folks have had to endure for 400 years in order to get a sense of why things are happening like they are today, this is a repetitive situation,” he says. “They’ve been treated like this since 1619 and we’re just going through a different iteration right now.”
In the movie, John portrays lead civil rights attorney Thaddeus Crump. In a twist of fate, the attorney now representing the family of George Floyd is named Benjamin Crump.
The role was offered to John in a serendipitous moment that could be its own Hollywood story. Originally, he’d met with the four filmmakers in his Hamden office as a legal consultant, but the conversation became much deeper and more meaningful as they got to know one another. They invited John to join them back in Macon, Georgia to see more of what helped to inspire the story.
John traveled to meet them at The Tubman Museum in Macon, where John was introduced to Harriet Tubman’s 96-year-old great-nephew, who is a retired physician, and several of his children, who are also physicians.
“I was overcome,” says John, who is also a student of history. “I felt like I was talking to a time machine. That was just amazing.”
Next, the filmmakers invited John to Sunday services among Atlanta’s “mega churches.” John, who grew up attending Christ Chapel in New Haven, was thrilled to accept the invitation.
“[Christ Chapel] was my first exposure to a community of black people, and it was so positive and so welcoming,” says John.
The size of Christ Chapel’s congregation, however, was quite a bit different from the Atlanta church service John joined, where about 1,000 were in attendance, and one of John’s hosts played a key role.
“The writer—who also happens be a minister, a singer, and an actor—he belts out a huge song, which just shocked me, it was so amazing,” says John. “And then, when he’s through, he said, ‘I’d like to introduce to you a super lawyer from Hamden, Connecticut. Why don’t you tell the congregation about the film, and about what we’ve been talking about?’”
So John found himself in front of that huge congregation, where he spoke for about 10 minutes. And as he shared their discussions of the movie’s story, and what he’d learned by delving into some further exploration of the history it shares, his own deep convictions began to surface.
“I was getting emotional. I was starting to well up a little bit, because I honestly have a great deal of trouble trying to understand how people can be so unkind and act so terribly toward another human being,” says John.
That emotion did not go unnoticed by the filmmakers. Afterward, the writer and producer told John they wanted him to portray the civil rights attorney in the movie.
“They had previously had a [black] civil rights attorney in their play, but they felt this was a more powerful impact,” says John. “And it took me months to realize why, but this is really not a black film. It’s really a white film about black people. I don’t need to be telling the black people about all the terrible things that happened to them personally or historically. I need to be able to tell white people that.”
What the filmmakers also understood, says John, was that “I had no acting experience [but] I wasn’t really acting. Primarily, I’m in this movie as an attorney in court. And that’s where I live.”
Growing up, John says he was privileged to receive an education that included attending private Hopkins School for secondary school. As John recalls, at that time, the school had only three black students. One was a young man who was in the same grade as John.
“We became very good friends; we studied at each other’s houses and his father and my father alternated driving us to school,” says John. “And this young man’s name was John Huggins.”
Huggins went on to be a leader in the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panther Party. In 1969, Huggins and a fellow party leader, Bunchy Carter, were shot and killed by a 21-year old member of the black nationalist U.S. Organization during a meeting between the two factions at UCLA. Huggins was 23 years old when he died.
John remembers Huggins starting out at Hopkins as a popular student who was elected class president, but in later years decided to no longer attend the school.
“He was the most terrific kid. Everybody wanted to be with him. But he saw something I don’t think white people saw,” says John. “I think he saw for this time, at this age, he had more things to do with his intelligence.”
Based on his own personal experiences with those in the black community throughout his life, John says he feels racist views that continue to emerge among people of different races and backgrounds show “it is possible this is not a genetic difference. This is a socialization difference. The movie wants white people to understand why black people possibly feel this way.”
John hopes the movie will help all who see it to realize that this segment of Americans deserve reparations to “catch up.”
“The more people understand it, the more people will understand this is about them catching up,” says John. “It’s not about white guilt or payback or anything about that. You simply cannot take the position that black people or people of color do not deserve to catch up.”
The Justice on Trial: The Movie virtual premiere will take place all day on Saturday, July 4, showing on Vimeo, Amazon Prime, The Holy Connection Network, and www.justiceontrialthemovie.com website, with more than 250 churches nationwide and other organizations partnering.
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