An examination of a wrongful conviction hits hard
It is possible to see a punch coming and yet still be knocked out by it. That is the experience of watching Just Mercy, a new film set on death row with implications far beyond.
Just Mercy tells the tale of an early case in the career of Bryan Stevenson, now well known for his work on behalf of the wrongly convicted but back then just an aspiring attorney wading into the muddy waters of race, poverty, and justice or at least the hope of it.
Considering we know the outcome of this quasi legal procedural–from the hints in the trailer or just from history–director Destin Daniel Cretton has created a powerful exposition on they way the death penalty works on the ground and its tactile impact on everyone involved.
Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian (Jamie Foxx) was tried and convicted for the murder of a young white woman in Monroeville, Alabama in 1986. When his case comes into contact with Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) in the early days of his Equal Justice Initiative, it becomes readily apparent that the evidence against Johnny D. is threadbare, including the state’s sole witness, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson) appearing to have been coerced into testifying.
From visits to Johnny D.’s family to some realer-than-real talks between him and his fellow inmates, Just Mercy takes the audience inside both small and big moments throughout this momentous story. This unfortunately includes an execution, a tragedy that is handled so deftly and sensitively that the force of its emotional trauma comes as almost a surprise.
The only glaring omission in the telling of this story is that of the victim’s family. They are referenced, and as one would expect, they want Johnny D. to stay in prison and die for what he is alleged to have done to their daughter. Their presence would have certainly been inflammatory, but everything in the way this case was handled shows the pressure everyone was under to get a conviction. The messiness of a grieving family would have confirmed just how messy this type of affair is. That said, it wasn’t their story. It was Johnny D.’s and his family’s, and they rightly are the center of our attention.
Casting is pitch perfect. They even found a judge who looks by God just like former Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, and there’s a prison guard who can only be described as “Brian Gosling”. Rob Morgan as death row inmate Herbert Richardson is quiet but powerful. Brie Larson is Stevenson’s main compatriot, but she plays a distant second fiddle, rightly so, even for Captain Marvel.
Killing people as a means of achieving justice is as old as civilization, but in these “advance” and “civilized” times in which we live, this could have been something we out grew. We didn’t. We still want that eye for eye, and we want it badly.
Soak in this statistic from the final pre-credits reel: For every nine executions, one person is found to be innocent. Now say that’s a damn lie and it’s off by an order of magnitude. 1 out of every 100 should be taken off death row. What are we to do with this?!
The fact that this case was such a slam dunk and was STILL tenuous in regards to its dismissal is both disheartening and completely par for the course. Justice was done, in the end, barely, and Stevenson has become an international figure in the fight for fair and equitable treatment under the law, but Just Mercy is still a tragedy, one that simply stings a little less than it could have.