Film Review – Just Mercy
The inherent inequity of the American Judicial System has been the subject of many pointed and moving stories. Cinema has a long history of portraying the wrongly incarcerated on screen. Also, showing the spotty record our courts have with applying punishment to prisoners as influenced by poverty, racism, and politics has well-trod territory for film. As far back as I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang to The Defiant Ones to The Shawshank Redemption, the soul crushing life for the unfairly incarcerated has made for good films. And the racially charged versions of these stories like The Hurricane or The Green Mile reinforce how our system can be institutionally stacked against African Americans. Needless to say, there are a lot of examples that cover the same territory as the newest entry Just Mercy.
Based on a true story, Jamie Foxx plays Walter McMillan who was a former logger that gets falsely arrested for the murder of a white woman in the late 1980s. Michael B. Jordan stars as Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard educated lawyer who opens a center in Alabama to help the underprivileged get proper legal representation. Brie Larson as Eva Ansley is a local in the community who is fed up with the way things are and tirelessly assists Stevenson in setting up his law office. They spend several years waging the uphill battle of providing legal defense for Death Row inmates of color. This is the deep South they are dealing with. And even though the 1990s isn’t ancient history, this story is a good reminder of how the problems of racial strife continue to haunt us. Stevenson seems to be the only lawyer who really cares about these inmates. He gets threatened and legally blocked every step of the way. Yet through it all exhibiting poise and dignity he continues to fight a very long battle with the courts to get these men fair hearings.
In a way films like Just Mercy are some of the most difficult to evaluate. If we are judging it purely on its message and intentions then it deserves an A+. The racial bias of our courts and the basic indecency of our capital punishment system is one of America’s worst issues. Our law enforcement and courts are vastly slanted against people of color. They are more often incarcerated and slapped with worse sentences than white people. Add the Death Sentence to that sad fact and the miscarriage of justice can be exponentially worsened. There is a statistic during the post-script of the movie that 1 in 9 people on death row have been exonerated due to things like DNA evidence which has only been around for a couple of decades. That is an appalling rate of mistakes for something so serious. So pointing these things out couldn’t be more important.
However, as stated before, you have kind of seen this movie before. Dead Man Walking first came to mind when watching this. Though the big differences from that movie (which was also a true story) was that the prisoner was white and guilty. Walter is neither of those things, yet he faces the same fate.
The acting in Just Mercy is universally top notch. Jordan has been carving out quite a noted career for himself. His character identifies with these prisoners out of simple empathy. He’s not looking for self-aggrandizement. He just clearly feels for these people. Meanwhile Foxx as Walter is unusually restrained. He is capable of some great performances. But just as often he can go over the top in past films. Here he wisely dials it back. Walter is trying to hold it together over the long years. But he also has a justifiable anger simmering under the surface that has left him broken and jaded.
Just Mercy is a good movie with some very good acting. It’s unfortunate that this story keeps having to be told. It touches on issues that have been around for decades and aren’t going away any time soon.