Marie and Johnny Justice are interesting and eclectic people who have a passion for equity and social justice here in Madison. But it’s very hard to put a label on them. What exactly are they?
“I don’t know. I can’t tell you quite what we are. I don’t think I can sum it up with one word,” Marie Justice tells Madison365. “I can tell you that we do like projects where we are able to use our creative powers and that we love developing concepts and ideas.”
Johnny and Marie Justice are, in fact, many different things: artists, storytellers, dancers, social activists, actors, filmmakers, photographers, parents, teachers, and serial entrepreneurs. Most importantly, through every endeavor that they embark upon, the Justices are willing to try as many new things as possible. They are simply not afraid to fail.
The husband and wife are the founders and co-owners of Justice & Justice Productions, a firm that specializes in documentaries, photography, and branding, with a focus on using their creativity to help drive social change in the community and beyond. They recently produced the Intentionally Welcoming Communities documentary ‘Walk a Mile in Their Shoes,’ which is a very powerful documentary that showcases five people from marginalized communities who tell their stories in their own words in hopes of dispelling stereotypes and revealing their commonalities as human beings.
Intentionally Welcoming Community is a public service program of the non-profit Design Coalition Institute. The idea of being “intentionally welcoming” is grounded in a research-based approach to healthy communities and wellness. They challenge themselves to address tensions between and within varying identity groups both nationally and locally. “That fits in really well with what we are all about,” Marie Justice says.
“Our mission is to create awareness. We premiered ‘Walk a Mile in Their Shoes,’ at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art on Nov. 12 and the biggest reward so far has been that people we don’t know have messaged us who have been really inspired,” Marie Justice adds. “We think that ‘Walk a Mile in Her Shoes’ can really help people see themselves and ask: how can I contribute?”
How did they find the interesting people to interview for “Walk a Mile in Their Shoes?”
“By saying ‘hi,’” laughs Johnny Justice.
“Friends of ours. Friends of friends and other acquaintances. Some of it was random,” Marie Justice adds. “The Hispanic gentleman we met in passing through another friend. That was one of the most validating, enlightening and important things that happened was that we made really, really good friendships out of this.”
What the Justices did in “Walk a Mile in Their Shoes” – and what they try to do in everyday life – is work to break down stereotypes. “People have all of these preconceived notions in their head about this person is like this or those people do that,” Johnny Justice says. “We wanted to show how people really are and to make sure that everybody has a voice.”
When the documentary premiered at the MMoCA back in November, it was very well received. The Justices have been and will be hosting more screenings and workshops in the near future around “Walk a Mile in Their Shoes,” including one at Edgewood College on Jan. 24.
“When you sit down and watch our documentary, we have you for an hour and a half. So, we’re not beating you over the head, we’re just laying it bare,” Johnny Justice says. “And you have to go with these people on their journeys.”
Marie Justice says that their mission with the documentary and the initiative it is associated with – Intentionally Welcoming Communities – was to inspire individuals to get involved in progressing change. The only way to do that, she says, is to continue to expose people to the documentary and the lives and plights of people outside of their immediate circle.
“In order to ignite change, it takes a lot of people moving as an army. We can’t be a few of us doing it alone. It won’t work. When we move together, that’s when we will get things done,” says Marie Justice.
“And everybody has something of value to add to the conversation,” chimes in Johnny Justice. “We are all put on this earth for a purpose. We all bring something to the table. We need everybody to do that.”
The Justices are currently filming a documentary based upon Judy Adrian’s and DarRen Morris’s “In Warm Blood: Prison and Privilege, Hurt and Heart.” In this fictionalized biography, Adrian and Morris share stories of privilege and prison, hurt and heart: epistolary accounts of two people raised in the parallel universes of southeast Wisconsin and northern Illinois.
“It’s a movie script waiting to happen,” Marie Justice says. “It’s that good.”
The Justices are also founders of We Are Icons, a calendar/video/book project and campaign that they are launching to help redefine perceptions of beauty. “We take iconic images of Marilyn Monroe and James Bond and Wonder Women and we recreate them with African-American people,” says Johnny Justice.
“We have quite a few things going on right now along with side projects that keep us afloat. People are always calling us for this or for that,” Marie Justice says. “‘We are Icons’ is going to be the next really big undertaking. It just has so many things that we can do with it besides the photography campaign. We will do icons of music, icons of TV. It’s an empowerment campaign. It’s splashy and it catches people’s attention but once we have their attention, we can start talking about black history beyond slavery and the fact that we have blatantly been kept out of cinema for decades.
“And we can talk about what that has done to us,” she adds. “As black people, we are often drowning in self-hate because of the European standard of beauty that is everywhere.”
They will also have a coffee table book where they will interview each of the photographic subjects to talk about what it is like to be black in America. “We will do a video interview. We will do podcasts,” Marie Justice says. “We’re very excited about it.”
While the Justices’ lives now seem pretty invigorating and stimulating and exciting, it wasn’t always that way.
“There was a time when I was working for a place where they manufacture farm animal vitamins and feed. I was making $17-18. That was pretty good for a black man with a high school education. But I wasn’t happy. I was barely making it from paycheck to paycheck,” Johnny Justice says.
To put it more bluntly, the work was kinda mindless. The people he worked with weren’t all that great, sometimes using racial slurs towards Johnny. It wasn’t the way he wanted to spend the rest of his life.
“You can die three deaths in a lifetime. First, we all die physically. Second, if we don’t live our passion and pursue our dreams and really try to go for it at least once in your life, you die,” Johnny Justice says. “And if you are not willing to continuously take in information against what you’ve learned before and seen before. If you’re not constantly bringing in new information and staying in a still-learning mode, then you die a third death.”
One day, Marie Justice bought a nice camera to take a picture of their four kids. “I was in the middle of my third death, working a job I hated every day,” laughs Johnny Justice, “when she bought that camera and I was mindlessly waiting for that next boring shift to start. I didn’t think much of it.”
Then they started taking pictures of their kids. “Our pictures were actually pretty good,” Marie Justice says. “We felt we can do this!”
Johnny Justice met up with the boss and quit right there on the spot. YOLO, he thought. To be stuck in a job you don’t like with people who didn’t treat him well, did not seem like living. “You might as well take a chance, right?” Marie Justice says.
The Justices taught themselves photography and videography and set out to meet people in the community who were interesting and active and working toward social justice initiatives.
“We love to connect with people and we thought: How can we use our skills to improve situations for people here in Madison and to give people a voice?’” Marie Justice says. “We just got involved by visiting different advocacy groups and sitting in on meetings and watching people and how they work and we found how we could contribute, too. That’s what we tell people all the time. Get involved in something … preferably something that’s completely outside of your box.”
And stay busy. On top of all the aforementioned productions and enterprises, Marie can be found on stage acting in Madison’s local theater scene including the recent production of “Detroit ’67.” She is also the newest host on Discover Wisconsin — the country’s longest running tourism show. Johnny can be found doing interesting work in the community like interviewing participants at events like Kaleem Caire’s “Madison’s Premiere Black Male Photo Shoot.” The Justices love to meet people and to tell their stories.
So, you both must be pretty social then?
“I’m actually a super-introvert,” Marie Justice laughs. “Johnny is an extrovert that can pull away fast if need be. But I hate parties and large groups of people.”
The Justices homeschool their kids, ages 11, 9, 7 and 4, and they instill upon them the same creativity, individuality, and thirst for equality and social justice that they try to live by.
“Oh, I know what we are,” says Marie Justice, referring back to the original questions. “We are dreamers. That’s what we are. I mean, we do try to be practical and make certain steps each day, but we are dreamers.
“We dream it and then we ask, ‘How close can we get to achieving it?’” Johnny Justice adds.
“My dreams are ridiculous sometimes. People would laugh at me if I said them out loud. But nothing is impossible in our world,” Marie Justice says.
The Justices have set future goals for themselves that are both big and small. “We want our production company to grow and to make great films and create programs and companies where we are creating spaces for equity and opportunity,” Marie Justice says. “Nobody is self-made. Everybody gets something from somebody. We want to be that something for people to help them with their dreams.”
“We can change the world around us,” Johnny Justice adds. “We have just started. As long as we can bring some equity and some true justice, that’s our goal.”