““The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” –Attorney Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
A novice attorney represents a wrongfully convicted Alabama man on Death Row in the late 1980’s.
Known by friends and family as “Johnny D”, McMillan (Jamie Foxx) is well-liked in Monroeville and finds moderate success as the owner of a small pulpwood business. When he is accused of violently murdering a young White woman named Ronda Morrison, no one is more shocked than him. He’s placed at the scene of the crime by a ne’er-do-well named Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), a known local criminal with zero credibility.
Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a recent Harvard grad, arrives fresh on the scene and armed only with his knowledge of the law and heart for justice, he fights for Walter’s exoneration.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, The Glass Castle), Just Mercy digs into the harsh realities of our broken justice system and challenges us to not only confront injustice in our court system, but to also reconsider how we view the poor and disenfranchised in our communities.
I first became aware of Bryan Stevenson and his meaningful work with the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) back in 2017 when I read his compelling memoir also titled Just Mercy. Both the book and the film detail the McMillan case from start to finish, however, the book is able to delve much deeper than the script.
The film’s greatest strength lies in its riveting performances. Foxx and Jordan in particular give it their all and shine brightly in their respective roles. The film’s power really derives from the believability of Walter’s plight and how harshly he is treated when zero evidence supports the crime he’s been convicted of. The realities of life on Death Row are inhumane. Abuse of power is rampant and being yanked away from his wife, children, and freedom is a tough adjustment. Compound that with the fact that his incarceration is due to a botched investigation and imaginary evidence, and it’s almost too much to bear.
And it’s not just Walter who has been affected. He quickly learns that his situation is not unique. Stevenson meets with dozens of inmates, one of whom is Anthony Ray Hinton, portrayed here by O’Shea Jackson Jr. Hinton spends thirty years on Death Row after being convicted of double murder during a trial where he didn’t receive adequate counsel from his “lawyer”. It’s a smaller role, but Jackson is sure to do it justice, giving an honest performance as someone clinging onto hope.
But even more heart-wrenching is Rob Morgan‘s underrated portrayal of Herbert Richardson, a veteran with severe PTSD who instead of receiving proper treatment, is convicted, discarded, and executed in one of the film’s most agonizing scenes. A distraught Jordan looks on and it’s there that you can feel a turning point for this character. He was committed before, but now he’s determined.
Just Mercy may take its time in laying out the narrative, and it certainly feels like a 2 hr. 17 min. movie, however, it’s an impactful story that left me feeling ignited and hopeful. Just like the book did when I read it. Mercy may not have flying superheroes with supernatural abilities, but it does have one hero that will undoubtedly go on to inspire a generation.
Just Mercy is still playing in theaters. I highly recommend it for all people!
What’s your favorite court room drama? Let me know in the comments down below!