By Marc S. Sanders
I’ve learned so much from movies. I really have, and I’m continuing to learn. An important lesson that I absorbed from Destin Daniel Cretton’s film Just Mercy is that we have a long way to go in this country. A racial divide is sadly still in existence. As I watched this film while the nationwide protest response to the killing of George Floyd is still prominent, it’s glaringly obvious that this story, taking place from 1987 to 1993, has likely only made a tiny dent in the reach for equal and fair justice between black and white Americans.
Just Mercy follows newly appointed Alabama civil rights attorney Bryan Stephenson’s (Michael B Jordan, who I still insist will win an Oscar one day) pursuit to overturn a murder conviction for Walter “Johnny D” McMillan (another magnificent performance from Jamie Foxx). Johnny D was easily ruled to have murdered an eighteen year old white woman. The trial hinged on the testimony of another convict (Tim Blake Nelson) pressured into making up an outrageous story that put Johnny D at the scene of a crime he had nothing to do with. All that mattered was that the all white jury believed this ridiculous testimony.
Bryan is newly graduated from Harvard University with nothing but righteousness and the intent of making a difference in this world. Against his family’s urging for fear of his life, he deliberately moves to Alabama with Federal Grant money to start the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) with Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), a passionate white southern mother who is prepared to face the danger of a prejudiced community that’s hypocritically proud to boast that it is the hometown of writer Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird). Bryan is informed that he can actually visit the Mockingbird museum and see where Atticus Finch actually stood. I question if the majority of Monroe, Alabama have even read Lee’s book.
Bryan’s intent is to research and represent those prisoners that likely never received a fair trial. One man is a Vietnam veteran who did in fact kill a woman with a home made bomb. Sadly though, his PTSD likely motivated this regrettable action. This man is more mentally ill than guilty and his country could care less.
Most of the film’s focus goes to the egregious acts that convicted Johnny D. While it’s plain to see how innocent he is, Bryan is faced with bigoted pushback from the local police force as well as the District Attorney (a very good and effective Rafe Spall). Bryan obtains a material witness but then that is compromised. Now he must rely on if the convict who originally testified against Johnny D will come clean with telling the truth.
There’s a lot you can become more aware of while watching Just Mercy. First, our legal system can be very tainted with extreme prejudice. Second, slavery may have been long abolished by the end of the twentieth century, but it’s racial underpinnings and need to dominate a black community still appears justified in many southern eyes. There’s a sad food chain that exists in the state of Alabama. It therefore becomes an impossible obstacle for Bryan and Johnny D when they take their case to the state Supreme Court. This doesn’t take a law degree to recognize such an apparent wrong. Yet, that means nothing if the judicial system won’t even read a simple and otherwise obvious explanation.
A third aspect that Just Mercy presents is police brutality against black men. It exists. A black man, such as a hard working tree cutter like Johnny D or a Harvard graduate in a suit, can get pulled over. The man can cooperate completely with hands shown and calm politeness when faced with an authority. Yet, with next to no action that black man will suddenly have a gun drawn on him and get slammed against a truck and put in handcuffs.
Moments like this continue to occur simply because of the color of their skin. It matters not where they were going or where they were coming from. If they just look guilty, then they must be guilty.
Just Mercy is a demonstration of a large menu of wrongs being committed against black America. Cretton’s script with Andrew Lanham, is a well edited and focused film that doesn’t drift into any side stories. Bryan Stephenson seemingly takes in a lot of cases all at once but for a two hour and twenty minute film, only so much can be presented.
Yes, Johnny D’s case is most prominent but time is also devoted to what could be his overall fate, a trip to the electric chair. Bryan Stephenson sees this first hand with another case. It is often a wrong and terrible outcome but it at least amplifies his motivation to represent these wrongly convicted men.
Bryan Stephenson is a tremendous hero portrayed by a humble yet passionate performance from Michael B Jordan. How many Harvard graduates would truly take their expensive Ivy League degree and put their lives on the line in an unwelcome community with no pay to save the lives of convicts who no one else has ever regarded?
Most especially during the current climate of our country, Just Mercy is an absolute must see film.