|Destin Daniel Cretton
|Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
|Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall, Brie Larson
|January 23, 2020
From The Thin Blue Line (1988) to In the Name of the Father (1993) to The Central Park Five (2012). All of these films recount the true story of individuals who, on the basis of flawed evidence, were incarcerated for years (often decades) for crimes they did not commit. How can you not be affected when thinking about the sense of helplessness they endured and the emotional toll on their families? It’s even sadder when thinking about others in the same position who died in prison and never saw justice served.
Just Mercy taps into the same theme and, drawing from his own autobiography, tells the story of African American lawyer Bryan Stevenson (played in the film by Michael B. Jordan). Stevenson graduated from Harvard University in 1985 and within a few years, he’d founded the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Alabama with the help of Federal government funding. Its goal was to provide legal representation to prisoners on death row and to also help those who had been denied a fair trial.
Stevenson and his dedicated, hard-working staff have helped hundreds of people over the past three decades but the film focuses on one in particular, Walter McMillian (Foxx), who was sentenced to death in 1988 for the murder of an 18-year-old woman. There was a mountain of evidence that showed McMillian was elsewhere at the time of the murder but despite this, the jury convicted him based on the lone testimony of a criminal (Nelson) who had ulterior motives.
As you can imagine, this is very much a David v Goliath type story. Stevenson had very few resources at this disposal and was up against the might of the Alabama authorities who did not want to admit they had convicted an innocent man. This is evident in an early scene where Stevenson meets the new District Attorney (Spall) and is warned that “if you go digging in those wounds, you’re going to make a lot of people unhappy.”
Director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12), who also co-wrote the screenplay with friend Andrew Lanham, has extracted great performances from his cast. Michael B. Jordan (Creed) is excellent as the level-headed, unrelenting Stevenson who seldom loses his composure. Jamie Foxx (Ray) earned a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for his performance as the exasperated McMillian. You can jump on YouTube to watch a 60 Minutes story from 1992 that features the key players and you’ll be impressed by how the whole cast, including supporting actors like Tim Blake Nelson and Rafe Spall, mirror the personalities of their real-life counterparts.
The point of a movie like Just Mercy is reflection. It’s easy to say “oh, that happened 30 years ago” but the Equal Justice Initiative, which now employs over 150 people, is as important as ever in the battle to address racial injustice, flawed judicial systems, and excessive punishment. An important film.