‘Just Mercy’: A must-read and must-see

“Just Mercy” was released in theaters on Dec. 25, 2019, to high critical acclaim. Based on the memoir of the same title that was released in Oct. 2014, it is based on the true story of Bryan Stevenson and the founding of the Equal Justice Initiative and one of the first cases the EJI handled. While acting was stellar, pacing and exposition were lacking.

What the case focused on primarily is that of Walter McMillian, a black man that lived in Monroeville, Alabama (where Harper Lee wrote her novel To Kill A Mockingbird). Ronda Morrison, a young white woman, was killed at the local dry-cleaners where she worked as a clerk. Nearly a year after the murder took place, Walter was arrested. Instead of going to trial first, he was sent straight to death row before actually getting a trial. In the court, a combination of incompetent lawyers and bribed witnesses worked to keep him on the row.

Stevenson met McMillian while interviewing other death row inmates looking for clients for his law firm that was created to give victims of bad trials another chance. McMillian at first resists Stevenson’s attempts to assist. His family, however, goes out of their way to enlist his help. What follows is two hours of unpacking a deep controversy put in place only to save face.

The movie stars Marvel Cinematic Universe alums Michael B. Jordan and Brie Larson as real-life superheroes Bryan Stevenson and Eva Ansley, respectively. The cast also includes Jamie Foxx as Walter McMillian, the innocent man Stevenson and Ansley worked to free from death row. Each of these stars delivered impactful performances, carrying the audience with them through the emotional roller coaster of false convictions and the biased court system. The lows of judicial setbacks followed by the highs of the victories are impossible not to be felt, regardless of personal experience.

One drawback, however, is the slow pace at the beginning. The source material tells several different stories almost simultaneously. In cutting a number of these from the film, it feels slow-moving. It certainly retains its impact despite this fact, however, and despite having read the book, I was watching in tense silence during the court scenes.

The largest issue was the lack of explanation for many characters and events. The only past really explored is Stevenson’s, but McMillian’s did have a few scenes dedicated to it. Everyone else is only seen as how they are introduced. While this may not be a large issue, it definitely hurt in the case of Herbert Richardson.

Having read the book, I was aware of Richardson’s case. He was a veteran injured in Vietnam. He had fallen in love with a woman, and in an attempt to woo her, placed a bomb under her porch to heroically rescue her from [it]. This plan failed when the woman’s niece picked the bomb up, which killed her instantly. Putting this story in the film would certainly make it more difficult to root for him, but without describing him at all, his scenes, while still moving, could also be far too confusing to viewers.

Despite its shortcomings, “Just Mercy” was definitely a strong film. Legal dramas are certainly not to everyone’s liking, let alone legal dramas with heavy emphasis on racial inequalities in the deep south in the ‘80s. The movie leaned into that, however. Instead of attempting to please everybody, it seemed to take pride in the fact that not everyone would show an interest, and it seized the attention of those that did.

I will admit that I got highly emotional throughout the movie, especially toward the end. I cheered aloud and may have shed a few tears (no one else was at the showing I attended, so no one else minded). This movie is a must-see for people considering a legal profession, and is certainly a good film to watch even for people who are not planning on taking that career path. For viewers that did not read the book, it may be harder to understand, but the overall message remains the same, regardless of prior knowledge of the case.