Bryan Stevenson, fresh out of Harvard law school, passes up on the glamorous opportunities offered to him by the big city firms and instead finds employment in Alabama as a defendant for inmates who had little to no representation in their trials, much to his mother’s chagrin. While working in the deep south, Stevenson meets Walter McMillian, also known as Johnny D, who has been convicted of murdering a young girl and sentenced to death row. In challenging the legitimacy of McMillian’s conviction, Stevenson himself is challenged at every corner as he faces head on the prejudice in the legal system he came to fight.
Just Mercy is a crowd-pleasing courtroom drama, led by the tenacity of Michael B. Jordan and the emotional tour de force of Jamie Foxx. It’s the kind of movie that makes you angry, say F*** racism, and want to do better. The filmdoes fall into familiar territory, but it elevates itself by crafting especially moving scenes that rattle the soul; there is something about watching another man walk to his death that fosters a certain appreciation for life, and demonstrates there is no humane way to perform the death penalty. Just Mercy, adapted from Bryan Stevenson’s book, effectively says no one has the authority to decide whether a man lives or dies, as there is no justice and certainly no mercy in execution, regardless if by electric chair or guillotine.
What I find most important about the existence of Just Mercy, is that the story being told is not centered around a “white savior”; it’s a film where one black man saves another, and that is a rare sight in Hollywood. Last year’s best picture winner, Green Book, is a “white savior” film; leave it to Viggo Mortensen’s character to keep Mahershala Ali’s character out of trouble and pick him up when he stumbles. It’s a story about a white person saving his quasi-helpless black peer, and it has been told many times. There is nothing wrong with this kind of story being told and the trope is featured in many highly acclaimed films, along with Green Book, Hidden Figures and The Blindside would be considered “white savior” films too. And the most ironic aspect of Just Mercy is that it is set in Monroeville, Alabama, the hometown of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, everyone’s “favorite” novel from highschool English class. As I assume we all remember, the narrative of To Kill a Mockingbird included a white lawyer, Atticus Finch, who selflessly defended Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused and trapped in a legal system full of prejudice. The parallel between Robinson and McMillian’s stories are obvious, and Just Mercy demonstrates an understanding of this, emphasizing early on its script that its setting was the hometown of Harper Lee. However, the disparity here is that Atticus Finch is now an ambitious black man, played by a real-life role model in Michael B. Jordan. Just Mercy is important because, to quote RaVal Davis, a writer for Forbes, “[it recognizes] the agency of communities of color and their ability to tell their own stories, be at the center of their own narratives, and save themselves.” It’s a film that may be hampered by an underlying sense of conventionality, but it nonetheless distinguishes itself on its own terms, and is a powerful drama in the process. 8.5/10