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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Dan's Review: Despite Flaws,"Just Mercy" Reinforces Constitutional Truths

Jan 17, 2020 08:38PM ● By Dan Metcalf

Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy - © 2020 Warner Bros.

Just Mercy (Warner Bros.)

Rated PG-13 for thematic content including some racial epithets.

Starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Lindsay Ayliffe, C.J. LeBlanc, Ron Clinton Smith, Dominic Bogart, Hayes Mercure, Karan Kendrick, Kirk Bovill, Terence Rosemore, Darrell Britt-Gibson.

Written by Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham, based on "Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption" by Bryan Stevenson.

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton.



How much racism is okay? I only ask because whenever race becomes an issue tied to a major news event or cultural clash, most of us are quick to draw conclusions about our society. Some may think that racism is just as bad if not worse than it’s ever been, while others may believe that there is no racism at all. As a white fellow who’s never been experienced what it’s like to be black and without the benefit of knowing everything, I’m inclined to believe that the truth always lies somewhere between the two extremes. I truly believe that racism is nowhere near as bad as it was in my youth when the country was just barely emerging from the depths of segregation, lynchings, Jim Crow, discrimination and other injustice. I’m not naïve enough to think that there aren’t any racists among us and that discrimination doesn’t exist, at least on some level. Statistically speaking, the country has been improving rapidly since the 1960s, but some remnants remain, either through outright racism or at the very least, an often lazy and incompetent justice system. This kind of condition is the setting for Just Mercy, the true story of a lawyer dedicated to making sure people of all color receive fair representation, even those on Death Row.

Michael B. Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard-educated lawyer who passes on a wealthy career to pursue justice for men on Alabama’s Death Row. One of his clients is Walter MacMillan, a handyman and lumberjack falsely convicted of murdering a teenage white woman in the 1980s. Out of appeals and running out of time, Bryan enlists the help of Eva (Brie Larson), a paralegal who shares the same passion for justice, as they set up the Equal Justice Initiative office. As he investigates MacMillan’s case, Bryan discovers that prosecutors and the local sheriff pressured a witness (Tim Blake Nelson) to lie under oath during the trial. Even though it would seem like a “slam dunk” for a dismissal or at least a retrial, Bryan’s fight for justice on behalf of MacMillan is far from over. He also continues to represent other Death Row inmates who did not get the kind of defense they should have as he also fights to overcome the complacency of the local prosecutor (Rafe Spall) who resists reopening the case.

Just Mercy is a good but not great film with excellent performances from Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, along with plenty of help from the supporting cast. The film highlights the reality that the echoes of racial injustice still exist, even if you believe things are much better than they used to be.

If there’s one aspect of Just Mercy that feels slightly more embellished than it should be (even though some liberties are obviously taken with the sequence of events outside the courtroom), it’s the implication that every Death Row inmate is probably innocent, which is statistically improbable, to say the least. Again, the truth probably lies somewhere between extremes, and it would have served the narrative of MacMillan’s injustice a little better had the film depicted him being subjected to living with a group of real killers. The movie also avoids much sympathy for the victims of Death Row inmates, even if you believe MacMillan (and perhaps a few others) were falsely accused. Don’t their families deserve justice, too? It’s still true even if the cops got the wrong guy. Again, both things can be true: Racism still exists – while racial equality (even in the justice system) is improving, and Just Mercy provides a context that leaves little room for nuance or context. If injustice is bad, it’s bad for everyone, no matter what your skin color. That’s real equality.

The movie also slows down a lot once you can sense that MacMillan’s innocence is too difficult to ignore. The court proceedings begin to feel like a formality, which detracts from the big dramatic moment you know is coming. There are also quite a few monologues that seem less than sincere and more pontificating of obvious truth than is necessary.     

Even with these quibbles, perhaps the greatest thing we can learn from Bryan Stevenson’s devotion as seen in Just Mercy is the reinforcement of bedrock Constitutional truths, especially the notion that laws and justice were intended to be more than just blind, but also colorblind. The movie also inspires me to know that there are people like Bryan Stevenson who are willing to fight for these principles, even when it isn’t convenient to do so. He is a vigilant hero this country needs, even at a time when things are getting better.

"Just Mercy" Trailer