“Just Mercy” is one of those films that reminds us why some movies are more than just vehicles for financial gain. They give us a window into worlds we may not otherwise encounter. In this instance, we get a peek into the lives of death row inmates, some there are guilty and some are not.
Delaware-native, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), meets a death row inmate for the first time as a young lawyer interning at a firm in Georgia. He later tells his mama that he didn’t expect to see someone his own age there. After graduating from Harvard Law, he moves to Montgomery, Alabama, founding the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), dedicated to giving good legal representation to death row inmates, especially those wrongfully convicted or too poor to afford good lawyers to help them through the legal process.
The film centers around the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), known as Johnny D to his friends and family. Johnny D runs his own lumber and pulping business in Monroeville, Alabama, but on his way home one day in June of 1987, he’s arrested by Sheriff Tate (Michael Harding), himself under pressure to find a suspect in the murder of white teenager, Ronda Morrison. Ignoring the overwhelming evidence of Walter’s innocence, he’s put on death row even before his trial "just to get used to it," the Sheriff tells him.
When Bryan visits Walter offering to re-look at his case, Johnny D, on death row for six years now, has given up hope. “What’s you gonna do them other lawyers haven’t done already,” he asks Bryan. Once Bryan takes the time to meet with Johnny D’s family, he comes around. “You met with my people. That means a lot.” “It meant a lot to me, too,” Bryan responds.
Bryan finds that Johnny D’s case is full of holes and that he’s obviously innocent and that lying witnesses and outside pressures led to his wrongful conviction. As he makes the slow way through the legal system with McMillian’s case, he also works for other prisoners, especially Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan). The difference with Herb is that he is guilty of the crime for which he has been condemned. However, his defense team failed to take into account the PTSD he suffers as a veteran of the Vietnam war. The whole reason Bryan has foresworn a lucrative legal practice to work with the poor reveals itself when he tells Herbert, “No matter what you’ve done, your life still has value, still has meaning.”
Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as Walter "Johnny D" McMillian in "Just Mercy." © 2019 Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
Ironically enough, Monroeville is also home to Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the white folk of the town keep on encouraging new arrival, Bryan, to visit the museum. Little did they know that Bryan would be living his own version of the famous tale of racial injustice.
“Just Mercy” is a rather predictable courtroom drama (after all, the outcome is already known) but the true story it depicts and the Oscar-worthy performances of Jordan and Foxx, give the film exactly what it needs to elicit a response from the audience. Most of all, the real-life work of Bryan Stevenson and the EJI, deserves the exposure the film will provide.
The supporting cast of Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, O’Shea Jackson, Jr. and Brie Larson contributes to the telling of this moving story. An especially poignant moment takes place when Morgan, as Herbert, facing the electric chair, tells Bryan that people have been nicer to him that day than any other day in his life.
Michael B. Jordan and Rob Morgan as Herbert Richardson in "Just Mercy." © 2019 Warner Brothers. All Rights Reserved.
There have been a few times when I’ve left the movie theater angry and wondering how what I just saw could actually be happening. “Just Mercy” left me those emotions and more. There was anger but also gratitude for people like Bryan Stevenson and his colleagues at EJI. If I had a chance to actually talk to Mr. Stevenson, I would ask him what can one do? In the face of such systemic injustice, what can someone like me, who knows very little about the law or how one ends up on death row, do to alleviate the suffering of people wrongly convicted? EJI’s website has suggestions on how people can get involved. Click here to see how.
When films move me like “Just Mercy” did, I often go to the source material, in this case Stevenson’s book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.” In its pages, I learned of how much more EJI deals with than just death row prisoners. Bryan’s stories are not filled with legalese but with humanity and compassion, letting us get to know the people behind the news headlines caused by their cases.
More stirring than anything, though, was Bryan’s reflections on his experiences at a time when he thought he might be ready to throw in the towel. This will be a long quote, but I think it’s worth putting out there. He said, “For the first time I realized that my life was just full of brokenness. I worked in a broken system of justice. My clients were broken by mental illness, poverty, and racism. They were torn apart by disease, drugs and alcohol, pride, fear, and anger. I thought of…the broken children we worked with, struggling to survive in prison. I thought of people broken by war, by poverty, by disability. In their broken state, they were judged and condemned by people whose commitment to fairness had been broken by cynicism, hopelessness, and prejudice.”
Bryan went on to say, “I do what I do because I’m broken, too….We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent….I told myself what I had been telling my clients for years. I am more than broken. In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.”
I agree with Bryan that we are all broken in some way. Therefore, we all need mercy. This shared need for mercy connects us with people like Walter McMillian, Herbert Richardson, and O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s character, Anthony Ray Hinton. But it also connects us with the God of Mercy who loves and shows mercy to all his children, including you and I, everyone in prison, and anyone suffering injustice of any kind throughout our cities and towns, states and countries for whatever reason. It is our shared humanity that makes a film like “Just Mercy” so necessary in our world today.
About the Author
Sister Hosea Rupprecht is a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, a religious community dedicated to evangelization with the media. She holds a Master of Theological Studies degree from the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto and an MA in Media Literacy from Webster University in St. Louis.
Sr. Hosea is director of the East Coast office of the Pauline Center for Media Studies, based in Staten Island, NY, and speaks on media literacy and faith to catechists, parents, youth, and young adults. Together with Father Chip Hines, she is the co-host of Searchlight, a Catholic movie review show on Catholic TV. Sr. Hosea is the author of How to Watch Movies with Kids: A Values-Based Strategy, released by Pauline Books & Media.
For the past 15 years, she has facilitated various film dialogues for both children and adults, as well as given presentations on integrating culture, faith and media.