Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx are great actors, and it should come as a surprise to no one that they deliver masterful performances in Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Just Mercy.”
Based on a book of the same name by real-life attorney Bryan Stevenson, the film follows his journey to Monroeville, Ala., where he sets up the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, which he receives federal funding for, which focuses on providing legal representation to those who would otherwise not be able to afford it, especially death row inmates. Set in the 1990s, Stevenson (Jordan) is portrayed as young and idealistic, fresh out of Harvard Law School, set on changing the world before he really got a taste of how bad the world really is.
Stevenson quickly enlists the help of Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), who assists him in EJI cases, and helps set up the organization. The film focuses on Stevenson’s interactions with three minority clients who where placed on death row due to inadequate representation and inherent bias and racism: Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (Foxx) and Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson Jr.). Richardson was placed on death row for a murder he committed as a result of a compromised mental state he acquired after heavy fighting in the Vietnam War, while McMillian and Hinton were on death row for crimes they did not commit.
Stevenson does the best he can to get Richardson in a mental hospital, and get McMillian and Hinton released, but at every step they are harassed and challenged by the local police and District Attorney Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall), who seek to uphold all convictions, even when Stevenson digs up new evidence that unequivocally proves McMillian’s innocence, so their white constituents can feel safe.
The film really is eye-opening about how present systematic racism was in the state of Alabama in the 90s, portraying rigged trials filled with all-white juries that convicted innocent black men; a racist old white male judge who initially denied giving McMillian a new trial despite being presented with overwhelming new evidence (in the film, Stevenson has to overrule his decision in the Alabama Supreme Court to get a new trial); a shameful law enforcement department that terrorized Stevenson at every turn and fired one of their own when he refused to stick to the department’s narrative that McMillian killed a girl when, in fact, the real killer was walking free; and a spineless political structure that favored only wealthy white voters.
If anything, the film is a firm indictment of Sheriff Thomas Tate (Michael Harding), as the film portrays him as responsible for directing the arrests of innocent black men for crimes they didn’t commit for years, as well as employing what I can only describe as acts of domestic terrorism to get convictions by illegally putting people on death row before their trials — in one case, coercing false testimony out of inmate Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson) by not only putting him on death row when he wasn’t supposed to, but also threatening him by putting him as close to the kill room as possible.
People who shouldn’t die by capital punishment get their postponements denied and die in this film — there is one particular death scene that is handled so well by the filmmakers, it will make even the strongest supporters of the death penalty think about abolishing it countrywide — but there is also hope in this film. We get to see an innocent man walk free, the state admit their mistakes, and a promise for a better future.
More times than once, white members of the town’s government mention how Monroeville is the site of the Mockingbird Museum, honoring the fact that “To Kill a Mockingbird” was authored in the town and many of the town’s locations served as inspirations to the book, yet their actions are indicative that they either completely missed the point of that book, or they don’t care. To them, the museum is a meaningless tourism destination.
Yet “Just Mercy” has many parallels to Harper Lee’s master work, as it documents on a much greater scale and through a modern setting the injustices Lee captured through fiction that occurred in the 1930s, with one key exception: While we see a great amount of injustices, we also get to see people like Tom Robinson walk free.
“Just Mercy” gets an 8.5/10