We’re taught from a young age to trust in the law. The law is fair and, if you didn’t do anything wrong, then the truth would shine through in the eyes of the law. Truth would win. In reality, the law is colored by the biases of its society and the system that upholds oppression regardless of the truth. Just Mercy, based on Bryan Stevenson’s memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, isn’t interested in reminding the audience that racism still exists. Rather, it’s a case study for how racial injustice has evolved over time and a nuanced exploration of the cruel unfairness of the death penalty.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and co-written by Cretton and Andrew Lanham, Just Mercy is far more nuanced than your average courtroom drama. In 1987, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a black man in Alabama, is accused and convicted of murdering a white woman. Without evidence linking him to the murder and the court relying on a sole (and false) eye witness account, McMilliam was sentenced to death row before his trial ever began.
Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a Harvard law school graduate and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, has taken on the case of several death row inmates in hopes to bring them justice. However, gathering the evidence to reopen McMillian’s case isn’t the only obstacle he faces. Stevenson must tread carefully through the layers of racism, both systemic and outright, that are so deep-rooted, the town would rather have an innocent black man rot in jail than acknowledge they’ve got the wrong guy.
Just Mercy is riveting, thoughtful, and painful, punctuated by the quiet, and emotionally nuanced performances from Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx. Jordan is committed to the role of Stevenson and, even as the heaviness weighs on him throughout the film, the determination and dedication to the cause of justice burns in his eyes like a flame. Foxx is equally as good in his role as McMillian. At first, he’s full of resignation and understandable hopelessness and Foxx’s portrayal is layered and raw, exuding the pain that’s weighed on McMillian’s life for six years.
The film’s strengths lie in its focus on the contradicting views about racism. Counselor Tommy Champan (Rafe Spall), for example, is deeply offended over being called a racist, though his actions say otherwise when he refuses to look further into McMillian’s case. Then there’s the fact that almost every white person in town implores Stevenson to visit the To Kill a Mockingbird museum, as if its existence and Atticus Finch’s fictional popularity is proof enough that Monroeville can’t possibly be a racist town. For its white citizens, racism no longer exists because slavery and Jim Crow laws are no more. For the town’s black residents, who live everyday knowing the opposite, the experience is notably and unjustifiably different.
Just Mercy is a legal drama that works on an emotional, human level. It’s not determined to show off how many legal words Stevenson can rattle off or who can yell louder in court, as many legal dramas often convey. And, although it’s formulaic at times, it’s deeply personal and rich in character, unafraid to delve into the corruption of the justice system and, astonishingly, does so from the perspective of a black lawyer and not a white man, as films of this nature are wont to do.
The film is just as much about taking home that win for McMillian as it is about understanding the deep-rooted racism that exists to this day, hidden behind the faux ideals of equality and the abhorrent willingness to enact the cruelty of the death penalty on the innocent. Incredibly affecting, compelling, and bolstered by phenomenal performances, Just Mercy is a masterfully executed film that settles in your bones and doesn’t leave.