No justice system in the world can be called perfect, and yet the American model has often touted itself to be amongst the best, and perhaps the most just systems of them all. Of course, many audiences will be more than familiar with the gross legal injustices that have often presented themselves in the United States, but still, the image remains of a nearly perfect system of criminal justice.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s (The Glass Castle) Just Mercy, honestly and movingly illuminates the imperfections of America’s legal network in a film that respectfully honors the never-ending fight for true, blind justice. It is not solely an urgent plea for earnest criminal justice reform, but a call to action to stop the poisonous effects of racial prejudice in a nation that still feels the wounds of slavery and Jim Crow segregation.
Based on the memoir of the same name by attorney Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy recounts the story of convicted murderer Walter McMillian, who awaits execution in Alabama’s death row. McMillian is not just any other inmate however; he is a black man in America’s Deep South, wrongly convicted from false evidence and inherent system-wide racism. As he says himself at one point in the film “You’re (African Americans) guilty from the day you were born.”
Thus enters Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan in a nuanced, yet forceful performance), a recent Harvard graduate, determined to help those who cannot afford legal representation, and to furthermore ensure that Lady Justice serves all citizens, not just the privileged. When he learns of McMillian’s case, the journey to overturn the conviction and expose the flawed practices that jailed him becomes his one fixation. With that begins a somewhat predictable narrative trajectory for the remainder of the film, and yet one that never stops being compelling.
In spite of an ending that most viewers would be able to see a mile away, Just Mercy never relents, like Stevenson himself, in repeating its core message: justice can only be called just if and only when it fully embraces the equality of all, regardless of race or class. And so the film goes beyond being merely a retelling of McMillian’s and Stevenson’s story, but ultimately serving as an exposé on continued injustice in a society that is theoretically supposed to be governed by the “rule of law”.
Michael B. Jordan, whose star has been steadily rising with starring roles in Creed and Black Panther respectively, showcases his very promising acting talent, bringing Bryan Stevenson to the screen earnestly and emotionally. Stevenson is determined and unafraid, yet he is just as much unsure and haunted by the task in front of him; with a combination of bright-eyed idealism and a wisdom beyond his years, Jordan is able to create a portrait of the everyday kind of superhero, the ones so needed in today’s world.
As Walter McMillian, Jamie Foxx effectively embodies a spiritually broken man, reluctant to accept Stevenson’s help, and ready to face the electric chair. Soft-spoken, reserved, and yet vehement in the knowledge of his innocence, Foxx’s McMillian is a saddening sight. Convinced that real change is impossible, the plight of McMillian and his family who have never left his side brings much of the film’s emotional resonance.
Filling out this landscape of desperation and hope is a terrific supporting cast including Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, and O’Shea Jackson Jr., respectively playing other inmates who have been denied proper justice. Their stories accentuate McMillian’s and further shed light on the urgency of widespread criminal justice reform; the depiction of an electric chair execution in the film is then not only a disturbing moment but a lasting reminder that too many innocent lives have been lost due to improper legal proceedings.
It’s clear then that the title of this film holds deep effectiveness in its double meaning; Stevenson is indeed looking for simple mercy or just mercy, but he is also looking for a mercy that is fair and impartial, a just mercy. Thus Just Mercy is asking us to consider that while the rule of law is one thing unless it is rooted in a true sense of equality and fairness, it cannot be considered totally just.
Featuring stirring lead and supporting performances, and an emotionally poignant and urgent commentary on the American justice system, Just Mercy is a rewarding movie that not only informs but hopefully enlightens audiences to not be complacent in the face of wrongdoing. While parts of the film unfold predictably, its emotional impact cannot be denied. Although inequities may continue to occur, McMillian’s and Stevenson’s story should at least prove that the fight against injustices can never afford to go out of style.
Review: Just Mercy
Just Mercy honestly and movingly illuminates the imperfections of America's legal network, respectfully honoring the never-ending fight for true, blind justice.
Urgent, emotional and compelling message for criminal justice reform