Film Review: JUST MERCY

JUST MERCY is a Timely Procedural Drama

Bryan Stevenson’s 2014 memoir has been transformed into a film worthy of his legacy.  Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative has been given a blockbuster platform to bring even wider understanding to its mission.  Michael B. Jordan , Jamie Foxx, and Brie Larson turn in excellent performances as Stevenson, his wrongfully accused client Walter McMillian, and EJI’s other founder Eva Ansley, respectively.

Does JUST MERCY tread over some familiar territory?  Yes, but it does it well.  The film focuses primarily on McMillian’s case, though other EJI clients also make an appearance.  One of the most emotionally arresting subplots includes the inability of Stevenson to stay the execution of Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan).  It makes the stakes of McMillian’s trial all the more real.

McMillian, who is known by most in his community as “Johnny D,” is pulled over early in the film, accused of the murder of 18-year-old Ronda Morrison, and sentenced to death by a judge who overruled the jury’s suggested sentence of life in prison.  By the time Stevenson becomes involved on Johnny D’s behalf, his client is pessimistic about his chances.

Racism is a constant theme throughout the film.  It is well understood that one of the primary reasons Johnny D is accused in the first place is because he had an affair with a white woman.  Alabama was the last state in the country to overturn its interracial marriage ban, which did not officially happen until the year 2000, despite such laws being ruled as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court decades prior.  Despite the fact that Johnny D has an alibi for the time of the murder, a confession from a white criminal (Ralph Myers, who is portrayed by the exceptional Tim Blake Nelson) is enough to revoke Johnny D’s right to his own life.

No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, JUST MERCY asks difficult questions about who we are as a society if we believe we can take a person’s life.  The injustice faced by Johnny D is only one instance of an innocent person being sent to death row.  By the time the credits roll, the makers of the film hope you will reflect on your own stances regarding capital punishment, and maybe even change them.

JUST MERCY is obviously meant to to drive home a core belief held by Stevenson and his colleagues at EJI.  Some may find this approach to storytelling too brash and preachy.  However, regardless of your personal feelings, there is no denying that the entire cast, and Foxx and Nelson especially, turn in exceptional performances.  Even if you know JUST MERCY is trying to make you cry or feel uncomfortable, it’s worth a watch to see an impactful story told with care and attention to the facts of its real life counterparts.

JUST MERCY will have a limited opening on Christmas Day, with a full release on January 10, 2020.  You can watch the trailer here.

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