Just Mercy

            This “true story” is difficult to watch, because we all like to think that there are no innocent Death Row inmates.  We want to believe they're all there because they deserve to be.  But what if that simply isn't the case, at least in this one particular case?

            The movie begins with Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) as a law school intern, visiting an inmate on Death Row.  Mr. Stevenson (“call me Bryan”) thinks he might have a distinct direction for his law practice after he graduates from Harvard.  He wants to help people, yes.  But specifically, he wants to represent Death Row inmates who claim their innocence.

            This sounds noble, except when you consider how much resistance Bryan is going to have.  No prosecutor is going to want to admit mistakes in the conduct of the trial, and neither are those in law enforcement who were involved in the investigation and apprehension.  Victim's families are going to cling to what little “closure” they have, feeling that though nothing can bring their loved one back, at least justice has been served.  Nobody is really rooting for someone like Bryan, other than the families of those who are accused.  The problem is, they don't make for objective witnesses.  And they're probably already drained of their financial resources, anyway.

            Nonetheless, Bryan manages to procure a government grant to pursue this “innocence project,” and this film is about one memorable case, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx).  Walter was convicted of a crime he didn't commit, by an Alabama justice system that was all too eager to quickly solve the murder case of young white girl.  Walter, who's black, was convicted on the testimony of one felon, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), who had every reason to lie----they promised to reduce his sentence if he did.  So Myers testified that he saw McMillian pull the trigger, when in fact he saw no such thing.  The only corroborating witness was a mechanic who was supposed to have seen McMillian's truck leaving the scene of the crime, but actually, his testimony was coerced, as well.  Now the problem becomes Bryan trying to demonstrate the obvious holes in the case to a judicial system unwilling to admit its own errors.

            What's uncomfortable about this movie is how much it reminds us that racism is alive and well among us.  And not just among Southern rednecks (though the showing of a Confederate flag was a bit gratuitous).  Yes, we could quote statistics about the percentage of those incarcerated who are people of color (59%, vs. 32% of the population of the U.S.)  And, we could quote statistics about how many on Death Row are white (13%), but the numbers don't move people like a real-life story does.  And Walter McMillian's story is so real it hurts.  Writer and Director Destin Daniel Cretton gives us some hopefulness in the midst of all the cumulative frustration:  Bryan's assistant, Eva (Brie Larson), is a courageous and supportive confidante.  The Death Row inmates manage to speak to each other in adjoining cells even though they can't see each other, which makes for some desperately-needed emotional support.  Walter McMillian has a large, supportive family that continues to stand by him.  And Bryan's determination is equalled by his resourcefulness, especially as he appeals to witnesses' sense of personal honor in “setting things right.”  But all of that finesse is emotionally offset by the cold, hard horror of an inmate's execution.

            A movie like “Just Mercy” serves to remind us that in terms of true racial equality in this country, we still have a long way to go.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association