Just Mercy is hardly the first awards-friendly movie to highlight the work of a real-life crusader for justice. However, it feels unique in that it may actually be capable of producing real social good. Destin Daniel Cretton’s film is based on the 2015 memoir of the same name by Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) founder and civil rights activist Bryan Stevenson. The book covers Stevenson’s experiences starting EJI, and working to provide legal representation to inmates who were illegally convicted or unfairly sentenced.
Just Mercy provides a glowing spotlight for EJI’s ongoing work in the areas of mass incarceration and racial justice. If nothing else, its prestige-seeking December release, and the warm reception it got during its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival suggest it could be headed for mainstream success, which in turn could produce much-needed support.
Michael B. Jordan stars as Stevenson, who we first meet as a law student at Harvard. After he has a transformative experience working with a public defender’s office as an intern, Stevenson moves to Montgomery, Ala., in 1989 to start EJI and work with inmates on death row. Through his work, Stevenson meets Walter “Johnnie D.” McMillian (Jamie Foxx), wrongfully convicted of murdering a teenage girl. McMillian becomes one of Stevenson’s first clients, which first requires Stevenson to convince McMillian and his family to trust him. But gaining the family’s trust is nothing compared to the obstacles thrown in Stevenson and McMillian’s way by a deeply corrupt justice system.
McMillian is convicted of the murder of a white woman in the same town depicted in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Many white characters in the film uplift the book as “a civil rights landmark,” referring to the famous courthouse where Atticus Finch, a white attorney, defended Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. It’s worth noting that the characters in the film who laud To Kill a Mockingbird are ironically often the same characters pushing to uphold McMillian’s conviction.
To Kill a Mockingbird and Just Mercy have notable parallels and important divergences: Like Atticus, Stevenson is defending a wrongfully accused black man from a racist community. But this time, there’s no white savior, and Stevenson isn’t going to lose the case.
Foxx is impressive as McMillian, giving a powerfully emotional performance as a man who lives with the dread of what he’s been told will happen to him, and the anger of knowing he should never have been behind bars. McMillian’s fellow inmates are memorable and heartbreaking, too, particularly Rob Morgan’s performance as Herbert Richardson, an emotionally troubled Vietnam veteran. As Stevenson, Jordan takes some time to reveal his character’s inner thoughts — which can be frustrating at times — but when the stakes are raised and his composure breaks, it’s compelling.
The only problem with Just Mercy is that because it focuses so heavily (and justifiably) on the process of appealing McMillian’s case — and the inherent injustice of the legal system — it skimps on character. It’s not always great storytelling. However, this film is a valuable lesson in how the law has failed (and continues to fail) people of color and those in poverty, a lesson that many who see it may not have otherwise been exposed to. By profiling someone whose work for social justice is ongoing, Just Mercy also gives those same audience members a way to actually get involved, something plenty of awards-hopeful films never do. In that respect, it’s absolutely worth paying attention to.