Full disclosure: I didn’t want to watch Just Mercy last week.
It’s not because I thought it would be bad. I knew Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx would be great. I just didn’t have the bandwidth to watch another film about racism toward blacks, which is the same way I felt months ago when the film came out.
Similar to Netflix’s When They See Us, I knew it would be a tough witch and I felt that I didn’t need the reinforcement offered by the content. Unfortunately, I came to the conclusion that these movies (and shows like Black-ish) ain’t necessarily for black people. They are designed for white folks to get a deeper look at what black America deals with.
This is why I felt it made sense for me to watch Just Mercy last week.
The film begins with Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) working at his job chopping trees. On his way home he’s stopped and and eventually arrested for the murder of an 18-year-old white girl, Ronda Morrison. It’s 1986.
The conviction relied solely on the word of Ralph Myers, a white convicted felon wo offered inconsistent and flat-out unreliable testimony during trial — testimony that claimed McMillian kidnapped him at gunpoint, made him drive to a cleaners because his arms were too tired, and when his so-called kidnapper left the car to go into the cleaners (where the girl was killed), Myers decided to go to a liquor store next door and then came back and saw McMillian looming over the girl.
For most people, if someone holds you hostage, makes you drive a car and they leave, you dip out. The case made no sense, and even worse, McMillian’s family could vouch for his whereabouts at the time because the entire family was with him during a fish fry for their church.
None of this McMillian from ending up on death row, gradually losing hope that he would ever get out.
Enter Harvard lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), who arrives in Alabama to help get people better legal representation, specifically people on death row. After digging into McMillian’s case, he sees the holes in the case. Unfortunately, the district attorney and everyone else see the holes, too.
So when Myers goes on the record and admits he made up the entire story that convicted McMillian (along with Stevenson actually finding audio tape of cops trying to frame the innocent man), the judge in the circuit court still denies a new trial. The racism is dripping in this town, and Stevenson has his work cut out for him. Everyone involved knows the case against McMillian is bulls#!t, but they can’t let him out because there’s still a dead white girl at the end of the day, and admission that they got the wrong person doesn’t matter when a town believes McMillian did it because he’s black.
I could care less about the acting chops in the movie, even though Foxx and Jordan are great. It wasn’t because of them that the movie elicited a range of emotions — anger, sadness, frustration and moments of sobbing.
The screenplay is based on Stevenson’s book of the same name, and it portrays some of his work trying to provide counsel for death row inmates. One of his clients, Herbert Richardon, wasn’t so lucky, as his inevitable execution date came without reprieve. He asked Stevenson to pray with him before the final act. A Vietnam veteran without, he chose to receive his American flag. It was a highly emotional moment, with Stephenson witnessing a client he fought for die in the electric chair. As the actor in the role, Jordan’s tears didn’t seem to need much coaching.
What’s most important with the film is following the work of the real Stevenson with his Equal Justice Initiative. At the end of the movie, they detail other people he helped that were wrongly convicted. In a neighboring cell to McMillian, there was Anthony Ray Hinton (played by O’Shea Jakcson Jr.). Hinton was convicted in 1985 for a double homicide and served nearly 30 years on death row before Stevenson’s involvement. The film even includes footage of the real Hinton hugging his family as a free man for the first time in three decades. Text at the ending also brings up a statistic:
For every nine people executed, one person on death row has been exonerated.
Just Mercy is free on all digital networks now. Which is good. Because people that don’t look like me, they need to experience these emotions, too.