Greetings again from the darkness. 2019 movie year brought us BRIAN BANKS, CLEMENCY, and now JUST MERCY. Three movies centered on death row and racism in the justice system. Being imprisoned for a crime one didn’t commit is simply something most of us can’t fathom. Add in the death penalty, and it truly becomes a horrifying tragedy. Bryan Stevenson is a Harvard Law graduate who founded Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization whose mission is to get innocent/wrongly convicted people off of death row.
Filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton (SHORT TERM 12, THE GLASS CASTLE) brings Mr. Stevenson to the screen through the story of Walter “Johnny D” McMillian. Mr. McMillian was so obviously not guilty, that the road block set up to stop him on his way home from work speaks to the deep-rooted racism embedded in an Alabama police force so desperate to solve the murder of a white woman. Oh, and the town is Monroeville. The same town where Harper Lee wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Cretton’s script, co-written with Andrew Lanham (THE GLASS CASTLE) follows attorney Stevenson’s efforts to unravel the racism and miscarriage of justice.
Michael B Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson, and Oscar winner Jamie Foxx plays Walter McMillian. Their shared scenes are extraordinary, and bring out the best in Mr. Foxx. Oscar winner Brie Larson (Mr. Cretton’s good luck charm) plays Stevenson’s assistant Eva Ansley, a hard-working idealist, who unfortunately is given little to do here. Tim Blake Nelson makes quite an impact as Ralph Myers, a convicted murderer with a twitchy delivery – and the state’s only witness against Walter. Rafe Spall is the corrupt DA with a southern accent that is painful to our ears, and Karan Kendrick plays Walter’s wife Minnie. In an all-too-brief turn, O’Shea Jackson plays death row inmate Anthony Ray Hinton, whose story could just as easily be at the center of movie like this one.
The film opens in 1987 and continues through McMillian’s re-trial in 1992. Along the way Mr. Jordan effectively portrays a man that realizes things are much worse than he anticipated. The film is based on Stevenson’s 2014 memoir “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption”, but it’s Mr. Foxx who excels here. He conveys the feelings of resignation that the man has for his situation … a situation so beyond his control, and one that he understands is biased against him. Watching McMillian come to trust Stevenson through actions rather than words, is exceptional acting by Foxx. We’ve seen how hope can be a dangerous thing on death row, and it’s certainly an emotion that Foxx’s McMillian is slow to embrace.
Bryan Stevenson is now a world renowned Civil Rights attorney and his foundation has made a difference for many convicts. He continues to fight against a racially-biased system, and it does seem that the attention is causing a change in attitudes. The movie comes across a bit slick and formulaic for the message it carries, but perhaps that’s by design so that more people will give it a watch. The intent is certainly admirable.
watch the trailer: