In 1986, African-American lumberjack Walter "Johnny D." McMillian was convicted of the brutal murder of a white teenager Ronda Morrison. In 1989, a fresh Harvard law school graduate Bryan Stevenson set up his office for Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, aiming to provide legal help to the underprivileged, especially those on Death Row.
He took up Johnny D's case when he discovered serious lapses in police investigation and legal procedure that led to his conviction and date with the electric chair. Being African-American himself, Stevenson would personally experience the extreme prejudice his client experienced from the authorities in small town Alabama.
"Just Mercy" was directed by Destin Daniel Cretton from a screenplay he adapted from the memoirs of Stevenson himself. The pace may have been calm, measured and steady, but those instances of blatant racism and human rights violations can still really shoot your blood pressure up. Everything felt so neat and one-dimensional. The good guys (even those on Death Row) were so good, and the bad guys (police and lawyers alike) were so bad. That led to an ultimately predictable conclusion, although Cretton did try to throw some wrenches in between for some excitement.
I found no fault with the actors who all gave earnest performances. Everyone was just so dignified in posture and profound in sentiment, save for the occasional expression of frustrated emotion. Michael B. Jordan, coming off powerful performances in "Creed" (2015) and "Black Panther" (2018), was so pristine in his portrayal of such a noble character as Stevenson. In that scene where he was strip-searched prior to entering the prison, his indignant face was raising hell in silence.
Jamie Foxx quietly played Johnny D. like a veritable saintly martyr in that immaculate white long-sleeved prison shirt he wore. Brie Larson may have seemed to be the token balancing white female in the mix, but there was an Eva Ansley in real life assisting Stevenson in his advocacy.
Rafe Spall played the local prosecutor Tommy Chapman, who never gave Stevenson's evidence a second look. Tim Blake Nelson played controversial witness Ralph Myers who was offered a lighter sentence for false testimony.
For a film telling about a case that happened as recently as 1986, it is infuriating to realize that such bigotry can exist totally uncaring for the innocent lives lost in this system. And then you realize that this class struggle does not only happen in the US, but even in backyards all over the world. Human rights continue to be trampled with impunity, such that sensible reminders like this movie are important to keep the flames of vigilance burning.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."