Lifetime Network Movie’s terrific original “The Wronged Man” stirs a strange mix of emotions. While it is undeniably uplifting to witness a person risk their career and relationships to see that justice is done in the case of a man wrongly imprisoned for life, it’s also a tragedy at how easy it is to identify with the weary indifference facing the prisoner.
Based on a true story detailed in a magazine article by Andrew Corsello, writer Teena Booth has penned a compelling, multifaceted script that tells the saga of Janet “Prissy” Gregory (Julia Ormond), a Louisiana paralegal and single mom who worked for 22 years to free Calvin Willis, convicted of raping an 11-year-old special-needs girl.
But this is not another white-woman-saves-black-man tale. Director Tom McLoughlin avoids that pitfall by displaying emotionally complex and sometimes unsympathetic characters while eliciting outstanding performances from Ormond — a marvel as Gregory, a true steel magnolia sans the typical syrupy Southern charm — and Mahershalalhashbaz Ali as the tortured Willis, who matches her scene for scene.
After her lawyer boss dies, Gregory is cleaning out his house when she comes across the case of Willis, imprisoned for life without chance of parole on shaky testimony and flimsy police evidence; it seems certain allegations of wrongdoing, especially in regards to children, incite primal reactions, and in some cases, accusations are enough to condemn people in the public eye, as well as the courtroom.
Even Gregory is reluctant to get involved at first, and just wants to hand off the case to the family so that they can retain another lawyer. A two-time widow trying to raise her son, she’s less than impressed by Willis, who at times is rude and uncooperative. Still, she can’t help wanting to redress the blatant inaccuracies in the case.
Other than the passionate support of Willis’ adoptive mother (Tonea Stewart), all others turn their backs on him, including his community and church and, eventually, even his wife (Lisa Arrindell Anderson). And the discrepancies in the case don’t seem to be enough to warrant a legal appeal, especially when jaded judges and prosecutors are involved.