Unjustly condemned to death row for the brutal murder of a young white woman in Alabama, real-life black logger Walter McMillian finally finds hope in northern lawyer Bryan Stevenson, who must unpack the tangled web of corruption and conspiracy.
Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, about becoming a pro bono lawyer for those wrongly convicted on death row and the Walter McMillian case, powerfully conveys the manner in which the Southern Center for Human Rights tackled racial inequality in Alabama and beyond. Destin Daniel Cretton’s cinematic adaptation of the film combines elements of the real-life story with the high-powered performances of Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and Brie Larson to engage, educate, and empower audiences.
“You don’t know what it’s like here down here,” Alabaman McMillian (Foxx) tells Ivy League-educated Stevenson (Jordan) upon their first meeting. It sets the stage for what begins as a contentious relationship between the two men because McMillian has given up hope that anything can change his wrongful conviction or his current condition, inside the walls of a tiny sell alongside hundreds of other black men who were denied a just trial. Central to the story is the relationship between these two men, but the film does more than that — it shows how the relationships between people lead them to who they are, and how they survive.
Stevenson is a man impacted by his childhood relationships, including with the mother who taught him to stand up for those who couldn’t speak for themselves and his colleague (Larson) who might be the only white person in Monroeville, AL, who wants to see McMillian released. McMillian has ended up in prison, due to failed relationships between blacks and whites, but he’s surviving because of his relationship with Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) and Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson Jr.). [Anthony Ray Hinton is another real-life client of Stevenson’s who wrote the memoir The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life & Freedom on Death Row after being freed from an unjust sentence.]
The audience’s viewpoint is still Stevenson, even though this is a big blockbuster with named actors who’ve starred elsewhere. The brilliance of Cretton’s direction and the performances we see (especially Jordan’s) makes us feel like we’re present when Stevenson visits a prison and gets unlawfully strip-searched by a guard, when he’s unjustly pulled over by corrupt police officers, and when he’s the guest at a death row execution. [A side viewpoint comes through the arc of a white prison guard who first mistreats Stevenson and begins to change after seeing his first execution.]
The story has power thanks to its truth and Stevenson’s beautiful determination, but the cinematic version proves to be as lyrical on screen as the prose was in the book. Like a song that stays looping in your ears long after you’ve listened to the lyrics, Just Mercy lingers, pointing to the edges of society and daring us to change our hearts and fight to change a (still) corrupt system.
The Dove Take:
Showing great restraint in what we’re shown, Destin Daniel Cretton’s portrayal of the Walter McMillian case leaves the most graphic nature of the story to dialogue and courtroom discussion rather than forcing it into our vision. Still, because of the gravity of its content and the language used, the film is recommended for discerning audiences who are 18+.