A white girl is murdered in a small town in the South. The police have no leads and are under pressure to arrest a suspect. Who easier to convict than a Black man from a poor neighborhood?
“Just Mercy” follows the true story of Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian (Jamie Foxx, “Robin Hood”), a Black man who is sentenced to death for a crime he couldn’t have possibly committed, and Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan, “Black Panther”), the young upstart lawyer who fights for his freedom. Stevenson and his newly-formed law firm face fierce opposition from the district attorney, the county sheriff and the deeply entrenched racism of a small southern community. Set in Monroeville, Alabama in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the film is an exhibition of police corruption, judicial malpractice and a shattered system of justice.
From the very beginning, Stevenson sees the glaring holes in the case against McMillian, just from reading the court documents. When Stevenson goes to county prosecutor Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall, “Men In Black: International”), he warns against opening old wounds. According to him, nobody in town believes McMillian is innocent. But when Stevenson goes to McMillian’s family, he is welcomed by a crowd of community members who know McMillian’s innocence for a fact. There’s overwhelming evidence to clear McMillian’s name, and when word spreads that Stevenson is digging up that evidence, the intimidation begins: the unlawful arrest of a witness testifying to McMillian’s innocence, a bomb threat against Stevenson’s partner Eva Ansley (Brie Larson, “Avengers: Endgame”), police officers who hold Stevenson at gunpoint at a traffic stop. However, Stevenson’s resolve is unshakeable and he refuses to walk away from the case.
While the movie principally follows the case of Walter McMillian, it also covers a concurrent case handled by Stevenson, the story of death row inmate Herbert “Herb” Richardson (Rob Morgan, “The Last Black Man In San Francisco”). Richardson’s case is different from McMillian’s. Richardson did in fact commit the crime he was charged with: planting a bomb that killed a young girl. Yet he was jailed with no acknowledgment of his service in Vietnam or his obvious and untreated PTSD.
“Just Mercy” would be incomplete without Richardson’s inclusion. It’s one thing to show how the death penalty has been doled out wrongly on a racial pretext. It’s another to expose just how wrong the death penalty is, even when the charges are accurate. Morgan’s performance as the haunted, death-destined inmate compels compassion in the audience. He encapsulates the hopelessness of death row in a brutally frank comparison to being in war: “It’s different than ‘Nam. At least I had a chance there.”
Given the dramatized nature of the story, it’s easy to suspect there are many artistic liberties at play. But “Just Mercy” sticks to the facts with surprising accuracy. A fact vs. fiction piece by Slate highlights this, noting most changes to Stevenson’s story are “matters of dramatic compression.” That being said, the movie is not 100% accurate. If anything, it underplays much of the stark racism; what real-life Sheriff Tate (Michael Harding, “Halt and Catch Fire”) said upon arresting McMillian is far more egregious than his film counterpart. Ironically, “Just Mercy” is merciful in its depiction of its most guilty characters.
(Spoiler in the following paragraph.) The ending tacks an asterisk onto Stevenson and McMillian’s court victory. While “Just Mercy” is a film full of hope, it doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that we are nowhere close to true justice. As McMillian’s family and friends rejoice in tearful celebration when the judge rules in McMillian’s favor, all the white people in the audience are clearly stunned, angry and disappointed. Even though Stevenson uncovered damning evidence of malicious police misconduct, Sheriff Tate was re-elected six times after the fact — he only just retired in 2019. (He would also go on to proudly pocket 110 thousand dollars designated for feeding inmates.) It’s almost as though the county rallied behind the real criminal — a white police officer — in an act of defiance.
I spoke briefly to a woman on the way out of the theater, she and her companion were the only other party at the screening. “This is what they should be making kids learn about, not Martin Luther King Jr.,” she said.
There’s a debate to be had about the dramatized depiction of Black injustice. But there’s also a debate to be had about glossing over generations of unstomachable wrongdoing against Black people in favor of more palatable stories about positive activism. “Just Mercy” shows just how much pain deep-seated racism continues to inflict, while highlighting the strides made by an advocate for Black people in the form of attorney Bryan Stevenson. It’s a fine balance of hope and heartbreak. That being said, I think that lady at the theater made a very good point — “Just Mercy” was certainly my most moving watch during MLK Day weekend.