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Just Mercy •••1/2
Starring: Brie Larson, Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Screenplay: Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 127 minutes
Release Date: January 10, 2020
Scott, I don’t ask for much. Today I just want mercy.
Mercifully, I’ll spare everyone my typical anemic snappy retort, Greg. Let’s recap.
It’s 1986 in Monroeville Alabama and Johnny D. McMillian (Jamie Foxx) has been pulled over at a police roadblock. Long story short, a young white woman was murdered and they picked up Johnny D. as one of the black “usual suspects.” He is quickly put on trial and committed to death row.
Three years later, an idealistic young African American lawyer named Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), recently graduated from Harvard, sets up offices to defend men wrongly accused of murder and on death row. He gets a cool welcome from everyone but his paralegal Eva Ansley (Brie Larson).
Stevenson meets with McMillian, who has had a history of terrible legal representation. McMillian doesn’t trust Stevenson and offers him little cooperation. Undeterred, Stevenson then meets with McMillian’s family, gains their trust, and gives them some hope that McMillian’s conviction can be appealed successfully. Stevenson learns that a key witness was coerced into testifying against McMillian. Soon Stevenson is harassed by the community and by law enforcement.
Scott, this is a timely story – despite its roots in the mid-eighties. In 2002 the “Central Park Five” were vindicated in their case of a woman murdered in New York’s Central Park in 1989. They were recently awarded around $45 million in damages (this was the subject of a 2012 documentary). In this case, it took several attempts and a decade for McMillian to get justice.
From a filmmaking perspective, this is a pretty ordinary movie. There aren’t a lot of twists and turns, and we pretty much know how the story is going to unfold. The performances were excellent with Jamie Foxx as the jaded and beaten-down man who is less than honest, but surely no murderer as he had no history of violence. Michael B. Jordan has an earnestness that carries the film. However, as with many courtroom dramas, his melodramatic speech near the end felt more like the director talking to the audience than a lawyer pleading his case. Also, the final turnaround by the prosecutor seemed forced and out of character. (The original prosecutor, Theodore Pearson, is nowhere to be seen in the film). However, the Tommy Chapman character was apparently softened a bit for the screen. A report in Slate magazine indicates Chapman had a strong dislike for Stevenson.
Another problem with the film is that it tries to bind emotionally with the audience over a man who really did commit a murder with an improvised bomb. The literary argument was that he suffered PTSD and didn’t know what he was doing. This man ends up going to the electric chair. Regardless of whether you favor the death penalty, using a character who actually did kill someone to engender sympathy is a weak case and missed its mark for me.
From a social perspective, this is a story that needs to be told. It’s stunning that still, today, people of color are tried and convicted simply because “they look guilty.” One of the problems is the need for prosecutors to deliver a conviction – regardless of the truth. I’ve met people in my writing workshop who have been wrongly accused and settled on a plea bargain just to get out from under the weight and cost of a lengthy trial. This case is made clear as the prosecutor (Chapman) says he has a need to make the community “safe.” But Stevenson retorts “which people? Because the blacks in this community live in constant fear of being accused, tried, and convicted of crimes they did not commit.”
Well said, Gregger. Just Mercy impressed me with its portrayal of Bryan Stevenson, whom I officially deem to be one of the greatest heroic lawyers in cinematic history. It is no coincidence that the movie takes place in the same Alabama town as To Kill a Mockingbird, a movie that the American Film Institute voted as having the strongest movie hero of all-time – an attorney named Atticus Finch. Stevenson rivals Finch in his steadfast defense of an African-American defendant who has been falsely charged and convicted of murder.
This is heroism in its truest and purest form. It taps into a powerful archetype of the hero correcting a grave injustice, redeeming a broken system, and saving an innocent life. Augmenting this powerful archetype is the presence of an underdog, an exemplary representative of a disadvantaged and unfairly treated group of people. McMillian is not a perfect man but he is a good person who deserves so much more from life. McMillian’s heroism, in the form of grit, resilience, and integrity, is surpassed only by that of his brilliant mentor and attorney, Stevenson.
Three defining features of heroism are that the hero must do exceptional good, must make a big self-sacrifice, and must take great risks. Bryan Stevenson checks these boxes, and more. He takes on the job of defending African-Americans on death row in the Deep South, where racial discrimination flows unabated. Stevenson does this for very little pay and at great risk to his own well-being. He is personally attacked and abused by the town’s citizens and by White law enforcement. Yet he remains undeterred and perseveres despite setbacks and threats. Heroes do the right thing even when doing the right thing is dangerous. In the end, Stevenson is ultimately successful in having the charges against Walter McMillian dropped, an outcome that had me teary-eyed and eternally grateful that people like Stevenson exist in this world.
Scott, you have reminded me of the irony of a town of racists constantly pointing out they were the home of To Kill a Mockingbird – as if it proved they were not racist by proxy. I enjoyed Just Mercy and thought it was a good film. But it wasn’t terribly interesting as a drama. I think Stevenson’s book would have made a much better documentary. Still, this is a story we all need to hear. I give Just Mercy 3 out of 5 Reels.
You’ve dissected the hero admirably and I don’t think I can improve on your analysis. As much as Stevenson qualifies as the hero, so too does McMillan, his family, and friends. These people suffered a terrible blow by having their familial leader removed from them and irreparably damaged (McMillian later suffered dementia related to his time in jail). McMillian’s wife, in particular displays amazing grace, dignity, and even heroism as she relates that while McMillian hurt her through his infidelity, she still loved him and wanted him home. This resilience in the face of unconquerable power is unfathomable to me. And the fact that this community lives in the shadow of law enforcement that will feed any of them to the wolves without cause, and still thrives is a demonstration of heroism that must not go unnoticed. Stevenson, McMillian, and his family deserve 5 out of 5 Heroes.
The message is clear – it’s beyond time for these modern-day lynchings to end. And we cannot move swiftly enough to rectify decades of abuse of our legal systems. I give Just Mercy 5 out of 5 Message points.
Just Mercy tells a story that we all need to hear, a story that illuminates the rot of racism that still permeates our society while also revealing the heroism needed to overcome it. There is a lot to like in this film, from the stellar performances of the cast to the gripping, heart-wrenching story of Johnny McMillian and his heroic defender Bryan Stevenson. I give this film 4 Reels out of 5.
We are witness to two hero journeys here, one by our unfairly incarcerated hero Johnny McMillian and one by the courageous and selfless attorney, Bryan Stevenson. These two men show the great eight traits of heroes – they are smart, strong, reliable, charismatic, resilient, selfless, caring, and inspiring. They demonstrate the grit and resourcefulness needed to overcome the systemic corruption in racist law enforcement. I give our heroes 5 Hero points out of 5.
Greg, you’ve nailed the message right on the head. Now that we’re well into the 21st century, aren’t we at least 150 years overdue in eradicating racism once and for all? Tribalism in all its forms is horrific, damaging, unjust, and threatens the very survival of the human race. I give this message 5 Message points out of 5.