Just Mercy stars Michael B. Jordan as real-life attorney Bryan Stevenson(a featured expert in our film The Great American Lie), an ambitious Harvard law grad who takes on the cases of the condemned (often black), death row inmates of Alabama. When Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx) is sent to death row in 1987 after being wrongly convicted of murdering an 18-year-old girl, Stevenson takes on his appeal and uncovers a system of injustice every step of the way. Similar to Stevenson’s work as a public interest attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in the Deep South, Just Mercy does a brilliant job of humanizing those who have been dehumanized.
Just Mercy defies the upsetting tropes commonly seen in films on race and injustice. Director Destin Daniel Cretton doesn’t rely on respectability politics to argue that the death row inmates are deserving of mercy and humanity—they just do. The film also doesn’t follow Hollywood’s beloved white savior narrative (seen in movies like Green Book, The Help, and To Kill a Mockingbird, which makes an ironic appearance in the movie), to play up the element of “not all white people.” The movie also isn’t afraid to dive into the intersections of race and class, which plague most of the inmates Stevenson comes across.
Stevenson confronts the justice system’s abuse towards the poor and disenfranchised. Initially, McMillan is hesitant to accept Stevenson’s help. A common narrative in the film comes from the prisoners who are given an ineffectual lawyer who takes their funds and completely abandons their case. As Stevenson, an educated Black man, took the cases of the Deep South, society’s racial bias was impossible to ignore. A skeptical McMillan currently at the mercy of a racist court system asks, “You think all them fancy words gone get you somewhere in Alabama?”
But how much of Just Mercy is accurate? Biopics get a lot of heat for not following the facts. Based on Stevenson’s 2014 memoir of the same name, the film adaptation sticks pretty close to the story. While Stevenson has dedicated his life to righting the system’s wrongs, the film delivers a strong message. McMillan and those like him faced lasting trauma at the hands of the court following exoneration.
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