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Just Mercy (Movie Review)

A well-made exploration of power’s ability to distort truth.

“The appearance of the law must be upheld, especially when it’s being broken.” —William “Boss” Tweed, Gangs of New York

About the Film

Throughout America’s past and present, minorities have frequently received the brunt of our justice system’s injustices. Throughout America’s history, the law has been and is used to protect those in power.  Throughout America’s history, white men in positions of power have thrown away generations of black men under false accusations masquerading as justice.

This is the historical backdrop of Just Mercy.  Based on a true story and adapted from a bestselling book, the film follows real life attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan).  A recent Harvard law school graduate, Stevenson moves to Monroeville, Alabama to take a job as director of the Equal Justice Initiative.  His mission: providing prisoners on death row the quality legal representation they were denied.  While researching the case of death row inmate Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx), he finds compelling evidence of McMillian’s innocence.

For Consideration

On The Surface—(Profanity, sexual content, violence, etc.)

Rating: PG-13. 

Profanity:  There is some coarse language including racial slurs.

Sexuality: None

Violence:  Hinted at but never shown.  There is a short scene showing a prisoner’s execution by electric chair. 

Beneath The Surface—(Themes, philosophical messages, worldview, etc.)

1, Willful Disinformation

This movie says a lot about our society’s tendency to label emotional opinion as rational truth.  Walter’s conviction was built upon flimsy testimony from a convicted white murderer named Ralph Myers (Tim Nelson Blake).  Myers never met or saw Walter before testifying against him.  Walter was arraigned despite being surrounded by numerous family members and friends at his home during the time of the crime.  Not only was Walter sent to death row before his trial, none of his family or friends were called as witnesses and evidence proving his innocence was buried.  To top off this disgusting sundae, the presiding judge overturns his original sentence of life in prison, converting his conviction into a death sentence.  It’s like 2+2=5.

Literary fans should recognize Monroeville, Alabama as Harper Lee’s hometown and her inspiration for To Kill a Mockingbird.   This isn’t ignored:  District Attorney Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall) mentions this fun fact to Bryan Stevenson irony-free. 

Just Mercy showcases how destructive lies are when wielded by those in power.  During a conversation with Bryan, Walter even admits to doubting his own innocence.  Walter McMillian was sentenced to die not based on the criminality of his character but on the color of his skin.  For a shattered town seeking some sense from a young girl’s murder, law enforcement was willing to offer Walter’s life to coalesce communal healing.  For pursuing truth, Bryan is threatened by those in power; from police officers pointing guns during a “routine” traffic stop to an ordinary citizen calling in a bomb threat at his home.  For seeking to balance the scales of justice, Bryan is labeled lawless.  For those in law enforcement, white feelings outweighed black innocence.    

2. Mercy for the Convicted:

On the flip side, the film also shows guilty prisoners.  Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) was a mentally troubled Vietnam war veteran convicted of murdering his girlfriend and sentenced to death row.  Herbert knows what he’s done and believes he deserves to die.  After finding out about his past struggles with mental disorders like PTSD, Bryan seeks a stay on his execution from the Supreme Court.  Though this fails, Herbert is touched by Bryan’s willingness to help. This type of kindness isn’t reserved for the convicted. Their relationship is a beautiful illustration of grace and mercy. 

This willingness to humanize prisoners separates Just Mercy from more standard issued court dramas.  In a flashback, Bryan connects with a death row inmate over growing up in church.  Herbert shares a rapport with fellow death row inmates Walter and Anthony Ray Minton (another wrongful conviction).  During Herbert’s execution, the remaining death row inmates bang on their cells in unison to show him support.  Herbert arranges for music to play during his execution to not subject his fellow inmates to noise from the electric chair. These moments provide glimpses of community, even surprising humor.  It’s a reminder of how even those condemned can display compassion.    

Final Verdict

This is one of the best films of 2019.  Though not a faith film, this film’s presentation of Christian themes resonates stronger and clearer than even some faith-based movies.  Believers should go see this movie.  It epitomizes how God can take our most painful moments and use it as a roadmap to help those who suffer injustice and displaying mercy toward those neglected or undeserving.  We are more than the worse things we have done. 

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