A powerful true story about the 1989 founding of Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), based upon Bryan Stevenson’s 2014 bestseller of the same name, Just Mercy. EJI, located in Montgomery, Alabama –and situated near the Museum of Peace and Justice (a Stevenson project focusing on the US history of lynching and slavery)– is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States. EIJ challenges racial and economic injustice, protects basic human rights for the most vulnerable and shines a spotlight on structural racism. Just Mercy reveals a justice system that “treats the rich and guilty better than the poor and innocent.” Stevenson underscores the faith in the better side of human nature: “We are all better than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” he maintains.
In an opening scene, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx of “Ray”), is stopped by a posse of police determined not only to arrest him for the murder of an 18-year old white woman but also to ensure he is found guilty. McMillian is Bryan Stevenson’s first client. Freshly graduated from Harvard law, Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan of “Creed”), is committed to giving back to his community. He has made it his mission to defend those on death row he feels were wrongfully convicted. (Additionally, Alabama is the only state in the country not to assign legal representation to prisoners on death row who wish to appeal their sentences.)
Hopeful at first that reason, evidentiary documents and witnesses will result in justice, Stevenson soon realizes that he was naive. At first he is unaware of the risks he is taking and of the threat he represents as an elite educated powerhouse of a young Black attorney. He quickly learns how to maneuver in a historically Jim Crow state, despite being viewed exclusively as another Black man to be denied the power that the legal system provides to attorneys. Ignoring evidence of McMillian’s innocence, the county prosecutor and police sheriff have other motivations.
Feeling more like a true-crime drama rather than a memoir, Just Mercy is both disturbing and hopeful. A staggering set of performances by both Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx give this film its heft. The undoing of mass incarceration is another matter.
Note: Bryan Stevenson, a MacArthur Grant recipient dedicated to undoing mass incarceration in the US, asserts that mass incarceration is the devolution of the justice system rooted in over four hundred years of lynching and kangaroo courts in American society. For other reviews on this theme, see: “Scottsboro–The Inexcusable” (July 10, 2012); “Slavery By Another Name” (September 18, 2016); and “13“–An Unlucky Number (April 24, 2017).