Before Just Mercy was a major motion picture, it was a book by Bryan Stevenson. The young Harvard-trained lawyer from Delaware “founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system.”
I have not yet read the book. But my wife has, and she feels that the movie treatment is a fair representation of the narrative. “One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian (Jaime Foxx in the movie), a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder” of an 18-year-old white female “he insisted he didn’t commit.”
“The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.” There was a great deal of evidence proving McMillian’s innocence. “The only testimony against him came from a criminal with a motive to lie.”
That story was the basis of the movie. Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) meets with Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), a local white activist, and he starts the EJI. Seemingly simple acts such as getting office space, is a challenge.
I found Just Mercy to be a compelling story about fighting injustice in a dangerous situation. It’s interesting that 99% of the Rotten Tomatoes audience found it compelling but only 84% of the critics. Most of the latter use terms such as: “There’s too little anger and dirt and fear in this story.” Another: “calibrated… with an eye to not offending White viewers with anything remotely resembling Black anger.”
These people have totally missed the point. The black folks are angry, but generally resigned to an unjust system that requires an unnecessary strip search. Or the fear of death when Driving While Black. A courtroom protest, shown in the trailer, will land you in jail. When the deck is so stacked against you, anger tends to be modulated.
A.O. Scott writes in the New York Times: “Just Mercy is saved from being an earnest, inert courtroom drama when it spends time on death row, where it is opened up and given depth by two strong, subtle performances, from Foxx and Rob Morgan.”
I was moved by Just Mercy. It wasn’t a showy cinematic experience. But it told an important story well.