*Editor’s note: mild spoilers for the plot of Just Mercy*
There have been a few movies to premiere in the past year that suggested a path toward Black liberation. Just Mercy actually delivers.
Just Mercy is the true story of Black civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, based on his book of the same name. It follows Stevenson (a quietly brilliant Michael B. Jordan) and his fight to get his clients — the wrongfully convicted Walter McMillian (a tour de force by Jamie Foxx) and the unfairly sentenced Herbert Richardson (a devastating performance by Rob Morgan) — off of Alabama’s death row in the 1990s.
A recent Harvard Law graduate from Delaware, Stevenson moves to Montgomery, Alabama after learning of the state’s high execution rate of poor Black men and its lack of a state-wide public defender system. In the deep south, he finds a racist, unmerciful legal system operating just as designed and a legacy of Black history and community to help him stay in the fight for his clients’ lives.
While McMillian is innocent of murdering a white teenage girl, Richardson, a Vietnam War veteran with PTSD, did kill a young girl unintentionally. Stevenson fights for the abolition of the death penalty and for both condemned men with equal vigor. Because “just mercy” is a practice, Stevenson argues; it is a decision about who we want to be as people and as a society.
Much like the real-life Stevenson in a courtroom, director and co-screenwriter Destin Daniel Cretton lays out this case against the death penalty and for a merciful and restorative legal system, unfolding a perfectly paced, emotionally stirring, and profoundly performed American story that manages to convince with compelling evidence rather than manipulation.
The evidence begins with a captivating script that’s faithfully adapted from the book (though it narrows down the scope of the book, streamlines some events and creates composite characters for the sake of conciseness) and continues with a prolific ensemble cast that taps into the truth of these people and their experiences.
As I have said before, Jordan is at his absolute best when he’s playing devastated. With such heavy material, Jordan takes every opportunity to bring the audience into the center of the pain. Because Stevenson is fighting for justice in racist Alabama—being harassed and held at gunpoint by the police and being forced to undergo a strip search at the prison in order to see his clients—he is limited in how he can express himself without jeopardizing his own life or his clients’. That requires Jordan to take the audience through Stevenson’s interiority with little more than a look, a quiver, or eyes stained with tears that cannot fall. Though he doesn’t necessarily embody Stevenson’s particularities, Jordan nails the anger, fear, heartbreak and joy of a young Black attorney fighting against all odds for a justice never intended for Black people in America.
But it’s the men on death row who will break your heart open. J. Alphonse Nicholson is on screen for mere moments as Henry Davis, but his performance as a young Black man on death row who’s refusing to see his wife and kids is powerful and ripples throughout the rest of the film.
Foxx is exceptional as McMillian, in one of the best roles of his career, channeling the man who maintained a modicum of optimism that justice would come and encouraged his fellow captives while facing the most devastating and corrupt opponents in the legal system. O’Shea Jackson Jr, as another of Stevenson’s real-life clients Anthony Ray Hinton, also delivers a striking performance. But it’s Morgan’s turn as the disabled veteran Herbert Richardson that sticks to the bones. Morgan’s performance of what happens to Richardson is imbued with so much humanity that it puts ours into question. How could we let this happen?
Despite its breathtaking performances, storyline and subject matter, Just Mercy is not an “awards bait” film. Like If Beale Street Could Talk before it, when displaying the insidiousness of white supremacist institutions and their agents, Just Mercy pulls no punches for the comfort of the liberal white Hollywood establishment.
“You can buddy up with these white folks and make them laugh and try to make them like you, whatever that is,” McMillian tells Stevenson in the scene of their first meeting on Alabama’s death row. “You can say, ‘Yes, sir. No, ma’am.’ But when it’s your turn, they ain’t got to have no fingerprints, no evidence, and the only witness they got made the whole thing up.” McMillian is trying to warn Stevenson of how they do things in Alabama, how the white folks of Alabama did him. But this speech is for all of Black America, no matter where you sit on the economic spectrum when you watch it. When it’s your turn…
Stevenson learns very quickly that there is little daylight between him and the poor Black people who have wound up incarcerated on death row. In his first scene on screen depicting the moment that the real Stevenson knew that abolition would be his life’s work, Stevenson meets Davis who’s the same age as Stevenson at the beginning of the film. Both grew up in the country. Both grew up in church. Both sang in the choir as kids. “It could’ve been me, Mama,” Stevenson tells his mother when she is grieving his dangerous decision to move to Montgomery after law school and defend indigent clients on death row.
He knows his class privilege as a Harvard attorney can’t save him when police are drawing their weapons on him or he’s receiving bomb threats at his office. And that radicalized him enough to align himself with those who are incarcerated; to argue that, just because someone’s in prison doesn’t mean that they are guilty, and just because they’re guilty doesn’t mean that they deserve to be stripped of their humanity and their life by the State.
That makes Just Mercy more than a run-of-the-mill courtroom drama. To depict the true story of Stevenson using his privilege to put his body between the condemned and the unjust legal system that wishes to harm them is a revolutionary act. And while Stevenson is literally a hero—the end credits share that he and his non-profit law firm Equal Justice Initiative have freed more than 150 people from death row—this is not a superhero story and it is not just the story of Bryan Stevenson or McMillian or Richardson. This is the story of us, who we are and who we could be.
Nothing drives that point home more than the music. From the stirring score by Joel P. West to the use of hymns and songs like No More Auction Block For Me, the music underscores the timelessness of this 1990s injustice story and reminds us that the history of Black people in America is also the present. But, as Stevenson argues, it does not have to be the future.
“It could’ve been me, Mama,” is the liberating awakening and “just mercy” is the praxis. Just mercy requires a complete overhaul of our judicial system, the end of the death penalty and the abolition of our prison system. It requires a redefinition of “justice” and “punishment” and who deserves them. That message is revolutionary and makes Just Mercy more than “just” a movie; it’s a movement, a way of being, a radical call to action. It’s on all of us to answer the call.
Brooke C. Obie is the managing editor of Shadow And Act.
Just Mercy is now playing everywhere. Content warning: police brutality, intense racism, state violence