JUST MERCY, US, 2019. Starring Michael B. Jordan, Brie Larson, Jamie Foxx, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall, Robert Morgan, O'Shea Jackson Jr. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. 137 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes).
Justice and mercy have met, proclaims the Psalm. This is certainly not the case in Alabama in the late 1980s, early 1990s. In fact, instead of justice, there are many travesties of justice. This is especially the case for prisoners on Death Row.
Just Mercy is a very interesting film, an exploration of the justice system, an expose of the injustices, campaigns for true justice – and a powerful argument against capital punishment.
It is based on a true story, the life’s work of campaigner, Bryan Stevenson, a young African American from a poor family in Delaware, who experienced the unjust murder of his grandfather, was educated at Harvard and did an internship in Alabama in the mid-1980s, encountering men on Death Row. On graduation, he packed his bags, his mother very afraid of the dangers for a black man in the south, and drove to Monroeville, Alabama, the home of Harper Lee, the home of that most exemplary of American lawyers, Atticus Finch.
Bryan Stevenson was a man on a mission (and, it should be said about his dedication and success that he is still on that mission after 30 years). With the help of a local assistant, Eva (Brie Larson) is able to set up an office, initially rejected, and has the names of six prisoners whom he wants to interview, hostility interrogated by the guard at the prison, humiliatingly strip-searched, treated with some suspicion by the authorities.
The principal focus of this story is on one of the inmates, Walter McMillian (a strong performance by Jamie Foxx) who was put on death row even before his trial, a man with solid alibis, held up on the road by hostile police, targeted by an even more hostile sheriff, found guilty on the most unreliable testimony of alleged witnesses. McMillian is against any help but Bryan Stevenson goes to visit his family. He takes on the case, confronting the local DA (Rafe Spall) who is racist and under the influence of the sheriff (with the final credits informing us that the sheriff was re-elected for 30 years, until 2019)..
Which makes the plot interesting in terms of detection, investigation, potential witnesses, the confrontation with the main witness (an excellent cameo from Tim Blake Nelson), hopes, judicial frustrations, appeals to good nature and true justice.
There is a moving subplot with another prisoner, Herbert Richardson (Robert Morgan), a Vietnam veteran with PTSD who created and planted a bomb which killed a woman, is repentant, hopes for a stay of execution which is not granted. The film’s audience goes into the execution was Bryan Stevenson, a jolting experience to watch.
Bryan Stevenson is played by Michael B.Jordan who has emerged as a strong heroic character in recent films (Fruitvale Station, the Creed films). Here he is required to be 100% sincere and heroic, which he is.
As with so many films these days, there are photos of the main protagonists, further information about the characters, but a fine tribute to Bryan Stevenson and his dedication. There is an epilogue with Brian and Walter McMillian testifying to Congress.
There is a fine phrase at the end of the film: there is a place for “Unmerited Grace” in our lives.
Roadshow Released January 30th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.