As a man who grew up and still lives in the northwest, I am aware of racism. It is still alive and well. But I am convinced that the racism that exists in the northwest is much different from the kind that harbors in the south. Outside of the larger cities, prejudice is a bit more subtle here. People are more polite.
I’ve heard stories about the kind of racism that exists in the south and have actually seen a glimpse of it a number of years ago during a trip I took to Mississippi, but I know I’ll never really understand it.
Destin Daniel Cretton’s latest film, Just Mercy exposes the truth that people like me never wanted to know truly existed. Based on Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, this movie records events that happened not that long ago but it feels as if they had occurred a lot longer.
These are true events but they feel like folklore. How can people treat other people like this? Throughout the movie, it becomes clear that some characters have deep-seated feelings about people of different colors without really understanding why. They just go through the motions. The really sad thing about this story is that many of these people thought that they were doing what was best for their cities and towns.
But Just Mercy is lot more than just racism. It’s about injustice and corruption.
Bryan Stevenson graduated from Harvard Law School in 1985. The young man could have gone just about anywhere with his degree. Against his mother’s wishes, Stevenson chose to start at the bottom where he would defend those who were wrongly condemned or who were not afforded proper representation. It was the start of an amazing, and yet very difficult journey.
Michael B. Jordan portrays Stevenson as he heads to Alabama and meets up with local advocate Eva Ansley (who is played by Brie Larson who looks nothing like her most recent Captain Marvel persona). While setting up shop, Stevenson sleeps on the Ansley’s family couch. Neither of them are going to get paid for their good deeds for a while.
From his first day visiting prisoners, Stevenson is treated unfairly by one of the prison guards and learns firsthand just what he’s up against. He meets a variety of incarcerated criminals on death row. Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) admits to a crime where he planted a deadly bomb while not right in the head. He says that he deserves to die, but Stevenson counters that killing Richardson for the crime doesn’t make it right. Then there’s Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) who, in 1987, was sentenced to die for the murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite no credible evidence. The bulk of the case against McMillian came from a testimony of another criminal who had a motive to lie.
Proving McMillian’s innocence isn’t so tough, it’s fighting the system that is in place proves to be the hard part. One of the biggest road blocks for Stevenson is going against Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall), the Monroe County DA who is just as passionate about McMillian’s guilt as Stevenson is about his innocence.
Though the film ends on a very positive note, Just Mercy is a rough ride to sit through. The pacing is slow and methodical. It presents some things that you’d rather not see including the execution of an inmate and the effect that it has on others in the story.
Jordan’s portrayal of Stevenson appears to be spot on. He is a man of strong convictions, but he is also a meek man; not the stereotypical tough guys you’d expect to see in a movie like this. Foxx is equally good as a man who is so discouraged by the injustice done to him that he doesn’t expect anything good to come his way.
This is a powerful film, but Just Mercy misses the mark in a couple of places. While Larson does a fine job playing the role of the foul-mouthed Eva, she doesn’t get to do a lot with it and I think the film does a disservice to the character. I will say that it is nice to see a movie portraying a partnership and friendship between a man and woman without there being any romance involved.
The other misfire is the fact that Stevenson is a devout Christian and his faith is likely a huge motive for doing what he does. But with the exception of a few brief mentions, his faith is never really shown in this film. Even so, this is movie not to be missed.
(Main Image: Warner Bros.)
I write about arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.