JUST MERCY (2020) REVIEW

Just Mercy is a courtroom procedural drama adapted from the 2015 New York Times Bestseller of the same name. Written by Bryan Stevenson the original book was a memoir that told the story of his experience as an attorney focused on working to appeal death row convictions. Beginning in 1989, Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) is a new Harvard grad most likely with multiple job offers on the table but instead of launching his career at a cushy law firm he chooses a different path. Heading south to Alabama, Stevenson establishes the Equal Justice Initiative and hangs out a shingle as a lawyer open to working on death row cases pro bono.

Just Mercy begins with one of many Black people’s fears, minding your own business and being stopped by an officer or group of police officers in a desolate place. It seems to be a small town and the police already know a bit about Walter McMillian who goes by the name Johnny D (Jamie Foxx). It says a lot that he’s stopped by a police roadblock and is questioned by one of the officers about his fancy truck and the freedom of being self-employed. The officer explains to him that he has been stopped as a result of being wanted in connection with a murder. He’s encouraged by the officer to give in to his impulse to run away so the officers on the scene can avoid the pretense of a trial and kill him right there.

From his very first contact with the police, it’s presumed that Johnny D is guilty rather than innocent. Granted, in real life I’m sure there was some time between the two but in Just Mercy, Johnny D is arrested in one scene and the media is discussing his conviction in the next. The story is not told from the perspective of law enforcement but we don’t get even a basic explanation of the investigation as far as how the police found witnesses and tried to confirm or disprove their stories. And there’s little information about the victim, how she was murdered, the scene of the crime, etc.

I think that plays into the point of Just Mercy. In a situation where someone is facing the penalty of death, often the bare minimum is done to investigate the crime of which he’s accused. With a suspect already in mind, the focus is on getting a conviction not on ensuring that justice is served. So the minuscule facts that exist are molded to fit the story the police and prosecution want to tell. And where facts and evidence don’t exist they are created in the form of questionable witness testimonies.

This is a travesty. But this is also part of the reason why the accused is allowed to have a defense attorney. The defense attorney is supposed to represent the interests of the accused and ensure they receive a fair trial in the face of the prosecution mounted against them. Yet, too often the possibility of receiving a vigorous defense is heavily dependent upon the accused’s ability to pay for it.

When we first see Stevenson he’s still an intern and has been tasked with visiting an inmate on death row to let him know that he’s at low risk for being executed within the next year. This is a joyful moment for the inmate as he will now allow his family to visit. But, it made me uncomfortable. As human beings, we all know that we were born and will thus die at some point. It is the one certainty in life. But the vast majority of us don’t know the exact day and time. I couldn’t imagine the stress of waiting on an appointment date and time for the end of my life and being told at intervals that I would be allowed to live for another year.

Stevenson and the inmate appeared to be around the same age. After getting the heavy subject out of the way, the two chat for a while and realize that they have quite a bit in common. They were both raised in the church and had similar upbringings but life just went differently for them. Stevenson realizes that under different circumstances he could have been sitting on death row instead of studying at Harvard.

Upon arriving in Alabama, Stevenson’s first obstacle is losing the office that had been procured due to the landlord’s fear of criminals being on the premises. The second obstacle is now having to operate within the area’s highly problematic legal system. Prisoners aren’t the only ones that the system attempts to strip of their dignity. Thus defense attorneys are also required to endure hostile treatment and degradation for having the gall to go against the system.

This ignores the fact that their role in the system is supposed to be to push back against the prosecution and poke holes in weak areas of their case. It says a lot about how things usually operate that providing a client with a strong defense is regarded as being difficult or combative. The police and prosecutors expect the defense to sit idly by and allow clients to be railroaded, if not aiding in their demise.

During his visits with multiple clients, we see a montage of men who have experienced poor legal representation. (Poor, in terms of both the defendant’s ability to pay and the quality of the legal work.) The lack of value placed on human lives is evident given the stories of lackluster defenses that some of these individuals share.

By the time Stevenson and Johnny D meet the man has just about given up and lost hope. Lawyers have come and gone who have made promises of helping him obtain his freedom. He speaks about the hopelessness of trying to get justice but also of just being a Black man in Alabama. Johnny D feels like you’re considered guilty or presumed capable of committing crimes from the moment you’re born. And all it takes is for someone to decide that your time is up and your life can be torn apart. Amid that chaos, you have little control or the possibility of being heard or treated fairly.

Something that strikes me about stories like this is the veneer of genteel that masks danger. Everybody in town is so proud of the fact that this is where Harper Lee wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird” and encourage Stevenson to visit the Mockingbird Museum. Don’t get me wrong it’s a great book but it seems like nobody has read the book or at least they didn’t understand its themes. Beneath the surface, there lurks an absolute feeling of danger.

It’s nice to see that Johnny D has his family and community around to support him. When a lot of people go to jail they lose contact with and support from many of the people in their lives beyond their immediate family. Johnny D’s case was built on the questionable testimony of one white man. But we see that multiple people from his community were willing to provide an alibi that he was elsewhere at the time of the crime. Yet, the police did not investigate their claims or felt that they were insignificant and thus not worthy of consideration.

The issue with Johnny D seems to be that he was perceived as being out of pocket for a Black man. He’s self-employed, doing well financially, and also previously had an affair with a White woman. All of these things seem to stack the cards against him and has created hatred for him within the local White community.

Some of the most powerful scenes are those that take place between Johnny D and the other men on death row. There’s the question of what consideration mental illness should be given when an individual commits a crime. And about the frequency with which it seems the focus of investigations is to arrest and put someone in jail rather than finding who committed the crime. Also, trying to do what’s right by not providing false testimony can result in harassment and vindictive behavior from the police.

The stories told within Just Mercy are compelling (not entirely new as I’m sure we’ve all heard similar stories before but compelling nonetheless). Yet, I found parts of the movie lacked the emotion and passion that should be coursing through such a story. And quite honestly, early in the movie especially, Stevenson feels a bit flat. I first became aware of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative around the opening of The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Since then I’ve watched interviews and a documentary about his work. And while he indeed is not mopey or aggressively angry it’s still easy to see and feel his passion for his work. For whatever reason, I just didn’t feel that passion come through here. I couldn’t quite put my finger on if it was the script or Jordan’s acting but something just felt off to me.

But I felt that tension and emotion with the men on death row.

It might just be that the emotions are so heavy in the scenes with the men on death row scenes that they overpower the other parts of Just Mercy. We usually hear about death row from the perspective of everyone but the condemned. An executed person can’t tell you what it’s like to prepare and walk into the death chamber. It’s heavy to see and know that a person is headed to death. I will readily admit that I’m not in favor of the death penalty under any circumstances. And I get that this is a movie but I’m not ashamed to say that the scenes regarding the execution of a prisoner took me out. Based on the theater where I watched Just Mercy, I wasn’t the only one. Everyone else also became quiet and you could hear people (myself included) sniffling.

Early in the film, I felt like Stevenson’s flatness was a flaw because he wasn’t as compelling as some of the other characters. As the star of Just Mercy, I expected Michael B Jordan to take up more space in the story. But in some ways having Stevenson be more subdued allows the emotions of the men he represents to be more prominent. He becomes like a blank canvas used to better tell their stories. To be clear not everyone on death row is innocent. But I think Just Mercy does a great job of making us think and realize that we shouldn’t ignore the humanity of the condemned or the possibility of innocent people ending up on death row.

Johnny D makes a point in Just Mercy along the lines of his personal experience being upsetting but also confusing and frustrating when dealing with his kids. As a parent part of your responsibilities are to teach your children right from wrong and to encourage them to stay on the right path. But what do you tell your kids about being good and staying out of trouble when you experienced and they see that you can do the right things and still find yourself in prison? It’s like walking a tightrope made of razor wire where if you fall off you face immense trouble and danger. But trying to stay on while maintaining your balance will result in getting your feet cut to shreds.

With Johnny D, we see a man who has made some mistakes in life but none that should warrant the loss of his life. He has lived a regular life where he wasn’t involved in illegal activities. Johnny D understands how the local social society works and mostly operated within its bounds. But, the one time he stepped out of line, it caused his life to be blown apart.

Part of why there is so much focus on death row exonerations is that the system works differently for those condemned to die. It can take years, decades even, for someone to receive an execution date because of the appeals process. Also, there are more pro bono legal resources provided for people on death row versus those who are just facing time in prison. It’s terrible that innocent people have been placed on death row (which is a mental prison within physical prison) and spend years there only to be later exonerated.

With the death penalty off the table, the appeals process is different and fewer pro bono resources are available to defendants. So just imagine the potential amount of innocent people who have served life sentences or any other sentences besides death.

I don’t think that anyone believes the justice system is infallible. But, if we as a society are going to condemn people to such a permanent punishment as death, the system must be flawless. There should be no acceptable margin for error. We must be able to ensure that there is no bias and the system will get it right every time for everyone regardless of race, income, lifestyle, etc. And even then, we should question the effectiveness of allowing our morals as a society to be compromised by the emotional response of seeking revenge and retribution through legal means.

I was looking forward to Just Mercy as over the last few years I’ve become a fan of Bryan Stevenson. I still hold Stevenson in high regard but I hope that this won’t be the only movie made about him. Or at least that more movies are made about the people he has defended.

I didn’t have any definitive expectations or pre-conceived notions about Just Mercy so I wasn’t pleasantly surprised or disappointed. I just thought it was a good but not amazing movie. Jamie Foxx was good and Rob Morgan was amazing as Herbert Richardson. I didn’t care much for O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Anthony Ray Hinton, not because he was bad but because in part, I thought he sounded like he was from LA rather than the South. Also because we didn’t get much of Hinton’s story. While the name sounded familiar, I didn’t even pick up on who he was supposed to be until the end of the movie.

It felt like because there were so many complex stories to be told some of them weren’t given enough space. I read an interview about the making of the movie where one of the creators discussed cutting out some storylines to get closer to a two-hour runtime. I’d be curious to see if there’s an extended director’s cut when the movie is released on DVD and if with more context the characters feel more fleshed out. Living in the golden age of television and streaming, I feel like Just Mercy would have been better off as a miniseries on HBO or Netflix. It would have allowed each of Stevenson’s clients’ stories to be told either within an episode or across a season. And we would have been able to see more of Stevenson’s development as a man and a lawyer. Cutting back on the details results in some of the characters feeling dull.

But at the same time were the flaws due to the actors or the script? For example, neither Herbert Richardson or Ralph Myers are on screen for huge amounts of time. But the characters have some of the most emotionally impactful scenes. I started out hating Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), the false eyewitness who testified against Johnny D until the movie got deeper into his story. I didn’t like Myers but he at least elicited some kind of a reaction and was engaging throughout all of the scenes. Both characters eventually drew me in and I felt compassion for them. There should have been something there to draw you into Stevenson and Hinton as well.

I recommend seeing Just Mercy while its in theaters, preferably with a group of friends and grabbing dinner or drinks afterward to discuss. But for a more comprehensive film about Bryan Stevenson and his work through the Equal Justice Initiative, I’d also highly recommend checking out the 2019 documentary True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality. And if you’re ever in Montgomery, Alabama make a visit to the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice for a more immersive experience and explanation of the peculiar history of capital punishment.

Author: Lawrence Lease

Lawrence Lease is a freelance writer and screenwriter. His work can be seen on Blasting News, Cinema Gold and The Washington Ledger.