Before I begin this review, I just wanted to say the Black Lives Matter protests (I’ve been part of one, but that doesn’t paint me as a hero) going on right now are so strong, so united against the racism, police brutality, corruption, fear and downright hatred that has terrorized and murdered people of colour for centuries, that I don’t ever want to distract from the discussion. Most of my upcoming reviews will be on movies and books like this one that emphasize the ever-important issues our world faces. And you know? The real-life story depicted in Just Mercy just might be the best one possible for this time, or any time.
Michael B. Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson, a real-life young lawyer, fresh out of Harvard university. I once saw a TED talk video about a former Harvard student who said the work was so tough, after homework you could either hang with friends or sleep, but there was never appropriate time for both. So Stevenson really has it made. And in the mid-80’s, right after graduating, he decides to set up office in Monroe County, Alabama, and says proudly to his co-worker, Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) that he wants to be the lawyer for those who haven’t been able to get proper representation and tackle controversial cases, especially involving inmates on death row. His first client is Walter D. McMillian (Jamie Foxx) who’s been in prison on death row for five years with no realistic chance of parole for the gory murder of a white teenage girl named Ronda Morrison. The thing is, the testimony that put McMillian behind bars is from a now-convicted prisoner with faulty descriptions, and Walter’s entire family can say the night she was killed, McMillian and his entire family were at his house doing “a fish fry to raise money for the church”. And this would never be something McMillian could be capable of doing. Stevenson tackles the case head-on but little does he know the law and proper justice in this sort of place involve an uphill battle of tumbling boulders and fellows in masks screaming for his head.
You know, back in 2012, I was assigned To Kill A Mockingbird in my English class. Before I became a blogger, it turned into my favourite book. I really, really loved it, and still do. I love the lessons Atticus Finch teaches the world and his kids about the world around them, and how his kids, especially Scout, teach him and the world the importance of chances and childhood innocence. But in this film, the sheriff glaringly points out to Stevenson when he goes to City Hall that this was the town Harper Lee wrote her book. And this county has plays, museums, all sorts of things to keep their pride alive about that fact.
What’s deeply insulting about this is, in the story the county so cherishes and loves, Tom Robinson was also brought up on charges through proven faulty evidence, and despite people claiming to remember the tale and it being drastically similar to McMillian’s case, the people of Monroe County aren’t giving him a fair shot. Also, even in a time (Mockingbird was published in 1960 and takes place in the 30’s) where Atticus’ actions were revolutionary in his compassion, there is a white saviour narrative present, so when a white person tells this fact to a person of colour you can feel an imposition of attempted superiority.
Not to mention Harper Lee’s sequel, Go Set a Watchman, released five years ago (which I’ve never read) reveals Atticus was actually a firm racist and Ku Klux Klan member. This story was back in the 80’s, 30 years before this info was revealed, but it still stings knowing today that yeah, maybe Atticus Finch isn’t the perfect model hero after all.
The town doesn’t want McMillian to be free for fear of causing white-person trauma. There’s proof the black man is innocent? Well, right now, someone is in prison for the murder of that girl, and that fact alone, even with the omission of that first fact, is apparently more important, and Stevenson investigating and disputing the evidence in the first place is apparently a spit in the face to everyone who knew Morrison. Now, this is the story itself; delivery is another thing, but you should not worry one bit about that.
I didn’t do my research before watching this movie so I had no idea if McMillian would ever be set free, and if you haven’t, I encourage you to go in with a blind eye too. There is so much here that rings completely close to home, every discomforting scenario more brutal than the last, and it is shot with upfront gusto. Stevenson sees black prisoners raking fields, a form of slavery present even in modern times, allowed only by the fact that they’re prisoners, and that gives guards the right to terrorize them however they please. The guards are even sitting atop horses. On his first visit, Stevenson has to undress, completely into his birthday suit, to be checked by the guards on his way in to visit his client, even though there’s no rule saying he must do that. Alas, the guards ignore the non-rule and Stevenson can’t do anything about it because the law is not going to be enforced on white people in Alabama, especially when the white person’s testimony would be “suspicion of the black lawyer’s obstinateness” and it would be taken seriously. Ansley and her son get a death threat call, forcing them out of their house and the bomb squad has to check it.
McMillian’s family explains to Stevenson that all the lawyers they hired always brought them only empty promises, obfuscated law-term nothingness, and hefty check demands. Stevenson is told the sort of lawyer that he is – who stands up for people in small, conservative places despite the education to take more stable jobs in big cities – is insane, somehow ignoring the ability to be rich and much more stable. He is a literal miracle, which fully imprints further that even if someone can have access to a lawyer, broken promises the world makes to you are everywhere in the slightest of cracks.
There are so many more examples throughout this movie that tell things straight as they are with no public relations gloss. And all the actors are beyond fantastic. Every lead, supporting and minor character talks and operates like they’re on the edge of life, which they are. Foxx gets right into the role so much that I cared completely about McMillian’s internal struggle to have hope, even if that didn’t affect the actual trial. We always get told hope can set us free, but how can you say that to someone innocent on death row, charged for one of the most gory murders in the county’s history?
Ansley says to Stevenson in a time of turmoil that she was told it’s not good for lawyers to get too close to their clients, that distance is healthy, but Stevenson’s taught her that’s bulls***. We can often be reminded to not get too attached to certain things, but should that really be the norm?
One of the most fascinating and scary things about this movie is when we look at the bad guys in this story, we can see resemblances to people we closely know. We see Ralph Myers, who testified against McMillian, (Tim Blake Nelson) admit he gave a false testimony because he was being threatened with the electric chair and his mental breakdown gets so jarringly worse the more he’s pressured with that fact. Anyone would be that way. We see a judge being biased based on how he knows the county would treat him if he went for the factual but unpopular (and that’s the deal-breaker) notion. We see Rafe Spall’s character, Tommy Chapman, convincing himself he’s doing the right thing and cares more about how his kids see him than an innocent man’s life being stolen. One of McMillian’s guards is sympathetic to him but does not try to butt in and stick up for him, allowing the evil of the penal system to persist. It’s easy to be angry at what is going on, but it’s hard to face the fact some people we’re close to are part of the problem too, maybe not all of them as bigoted but at least some having a hidden racism and classism complex.
McMillian’s case was not only real-life, as was how long he spent on death row, but there are so many cases out there that are even worse. Have you heard of Matthew Charles? He spent 20 years in jail, starting in 1996, for drug dealing, and never got into any fights during his whole time there. After he was finally released, just shortly after, he was ordered to return to prison for another 15 years because he was actually supposed to serve 35 but a system glitch that was found out about decreased that number. He is now free again and I cried enormously happy tears when I found that out, but I completely know if he were white, he never would’ve had to spend 3 years in jail, much less 20 or 35, for something like drug dealing.
Also, do any of you know who Louis Taylor is? He was released from prison in 2013 after being behind bars for “FORTY-TWO” years. When he was 16, he was staying at a hotel in Tucson, Arizona, and it caught fire, and he was blamed for arson. What’s more, he was a black teenager with an entirely write jury. Let me repeat. 42 years. That’s not just a statistic, that’s twice as long as I’ve been alive. Imagine spending that long with your life stolen from you just because your skin colour made you a fitting target. It was the exact same for McMillian. It’s the exact same for every person of colour in jail right now. Being sentenced to life in prison that way would be the death of me. I know I wouldn’t last a single year.
Just Mercy is an outstanding film that isn’t just a film. It’s a look into the world lucky people don’t see through their bathing suits and mini fridges, and it’s a look they owe it to themselves to see. “They can call it how they want,” says one of McMillian’s relatives at a meeting. “It’s just another way to lynch a black man.” And the world is full of ways of doing this and it will stay that way until the whole world changes. And so often we’re told we can’t change the world. But Bryan Stevenson was told that as well.
If you like this, I’d try: The Hate U Give, both book and movie. I’d also look at the movies Queen & Slim, and Black Panther. The Escape from Furnace book series by Alexander Gordon Smith might also be worth a look. They do not tackle racism issues but they do involve the very real fears of being locked up for life for a crime you never committed, and both the beauty and danger of hope as the prisoners attempt an impossible escape. The real Bryan Stevenson also wrote the book this movie is based on. I haven’t read it but I have serious doubt I won’t love it when I do.