Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Screenplay by: Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham
Systemic racism is a form of racism practiced in social and political institutions, such as law enforcement. In 2013, the Black Lives Matter international activist movement was formed to battle against the treatment against black people by law enforcement, where many have lost their lives due to racial profiling or racial inequality. BLM predominantly deals with police brutality but in 1989, the Equal Justice Initiative was formed in order to fight when someone had already been wrongly incarcerated, those who couldn’t afford their own legal fees or those who had been denied a fair trial.
Just Mercy tells the true story of Bryan Stevenson, the founder of EJI. When he meets alleged Walter McMillian, he decides to take on his case in order to prove that he didn’t commit the crime of which he was accused – the murder of Ronda Morrison in 1986. Set in Alabama in 1989, the film develops the highs and the lows of Stevenson’s journey as he fights to prove Walter’s innocence while fighting against the systemic racism that is also pointed his way.
The film opens with an establishing shot of something similar to a noose dangling from the trees above – already opening up the theme of life, death and execution to the audience. Death Row is a prison reserved for criminals who have been deemed by law that they should be executed for what they have done. However, the EJI have since discovered that over 100 people had been wrongly incarcerated for a crime that they hadn’t committed.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is the source material for this film, the personal memoirs of Bryan Stevenson who is portrayed by Michael B. Jordan in the adaptation. When telling such an emotive, powerful story that is heavily stemmed from issues that are still prevalent today, the production crew had to tread carefully while still getting their point across. The characters are all presented in a way that makes them feel tangible to the audience and the struggles they face are there for all to see.
When Bryan Stevenson first meets Walter McMillian, portrayed by Jamie Foxx, the scene is charged with emotion and distrust. Walter has been dealt nothing but injustice since he was pulled over for a crime that he hadn’t committed, had no connection to aside from his race and the fact he ‘looks like someone that could have done it.’ Bryan’s personal experience of the law has only ever been in the craft that he has learned in order to become a lawyer but later in the film, he reveals that his grandfather was murdered for a black and white TV. But when he called for help, nobody came because ‘to them, it was just another black man that had been killed.’
This marks the moment when Walter begins to trust him with his case as he had seen him as nothing more than a naive young lawyer who didn’t know what he was taking on. In the first scene where they meet, he says to Bryan, ‘You don’t know what you’re into down here in Alabama. Here you’re guilty from the moment you’re born.’ What followed was a friendship and legal struggle which lasted over six years in order to fight for his freedom which he inevitably won after unearthing corrupt secrets that landed the white men in charge of his sentencing creating false evidence and testimony in order to pin the murder to him.
Destin Daniel Cretton knew when he took on the project that it was going to be unemotionally charged one that he had to handle with care due to the subject matter. But he does so in a manner that makes the characters feel as real as they are while accurately showing the inequality between white law enforcers, black lawyers and all races of prisoners. Above all, he presents the heart of the story – a man who had been in the wrong place, at the wrong time, who had been targeted because of his race.
“He’s very interested in different systems, like the system of children in a foster home, the justice system or the people on death row. And he always, I think, approaches the system through the lens of family. He’s very moved and inspired by the families people are able to create in spite of, or despite, or in overcoming the limitations that society and the world have placed around them.”
Andrew Lanham, NPR
The thorny themes that are presented in the film are still sadly relevant today, even if awareness has been raised which is what makes the film so powerful. This isn’t something that is a moment in history, something where a whole nation was changed and it never happened again. The EJI are still up and running, alongside the Black Lives Matter movement and many others which are battling against the American justice system which at times, is extremely corrupt.
Just Mercy is an emotionally driven story that accurately highlights the racial injustice of yesterday that is still effecting many today. Not one moment in the film feels false or Oscar-baity, which so many of these powerful adaptations can feel. It’s sincerely directed and acted and is one of the best films of the year. You can donate to the Equal Justice Initiative here and to Black Lives Matter here.
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