Just Mercy Is A Well-Made Emotive Piece Of Art

Just Mercy court scene

I have watched a handful of 2019 movies made from true-life stories. Two of them “Hustlers” and “Bombshell” did not resonate with me; while the former was largely dry, the latter was a disjointed mess of clips.  I felt that “Hustlers” and “Bombshell” may have faired better as documentaries. The Academy Awards guys do not agree with me on “Bombshell” for two of the actresses are nominated for the Oscars. But that doesn’t mean anything – worse movies have made it to the nominees’ list and legends have been ignored so many times before that using Oscar as an indication of great performances is the first lesson you learn in reviews – they are useless. “Just Mercy” is one movie that really impressed me this season. “The Irishman” did too, but not the same way; where “The Irishman” made me think, “Just Mercy” made me rethink everything I know about race, the prison system, injustice and everything I think I knew about race, the prison system, and injustice.

Just Mercy Review

The film stars Michael B. Jordan in the lead. His most memorable art for me was his anti-villain role in “Black Panther”.  It was hard to see him in any role order than that violent leader of the Wakandas but he has moved away from that character very well. At least, he has given us a big role to complement if not counter the Panther role. Jordan played the character of Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard law graduate who rather than stay in the North and take his share of the American dream decided to fight for the blacks in the South who were still getting the zero-end of the legal system in the 1980s. His father is a skeptic and his mother non-supportive but he goes ahead with his plan all the same – he goes to Alabama.

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In Alabama, he meets Eva from the Equal Justice Initiative played by Brie Larson and she introduces him to the death row cases and one of them stands out. It is Walter McMillian’s case. He has been on death row for a couple of years after he got arrested for the murder of a white girl. The fact that he was nowhere near the murder scene at the time of the murder and the fact that he has dozens of black people to testify for his alibi do not count. A white felon testifies that he saw McMillian at the murder scene with a smoking gun and that is all that matters – the jury sends McMillian to life in imprisonment, but the Judge overturns the jury and sentences the dude played by Jamie Foxx to death.

Emotions, emotions

“Just Mercy” is a movie packed with emotive moments.

That time when Walter McMillian makes his walk of freedom with the other inmates hitting their stainless cups/bowls on their cell doors is an emotional piece to watch and that turn to look at the prison cells for the last time is one of the most iconic things on the screen in recent times. They are happy to see him go even though they may never see the light of the outside world.

In the courtroom, after Stevenson gets the witness Myers the felon who had given the false witness on McMillian years ago on the stands, the world stands still as Stevenson dares him to look Jamie Foxx in the eye and repeat the claim. He is unable to do that. Instead, he confesses that he was under extreme pressure from the prosecutors to testify falsely against the accused. He goes ahead to plead that the court sends McMillian home to his family where he belongs. The judge waits one month to give his ruling. He rules that Myers perjured himself therefore the case cannot be retried and Jamie Foxx’s character must be hanged.

I couldn’t keep my hands from shaking as I watched this blatant rape of Justice. John McMillian, first son of the wrongly accused, played by C.J. LeBlanc couldn’t keep his buttocks on the chair. He gets up, challenged the judge and he is grabbed and a struggle ensues. But it isn’t John that they pin on the floor and drag away, it is justice and the black man on the floor, beaten, handcuffed and dragged out. If the film was cold for you all this while, this is the point it came alive in sheer shock with the spots of the blood of the miscarried justice dripping out of the screen unto your lap.

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The execution of one of the death row inmates, Herbert Richardson played by Rob Morgan is also one touching moment. The song “Old Rugged Cross” plays in a room with the sound system taking the words all over the prison yard. It is a moment of irony lost on only the executioners. The song sings about the redemptive power of Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified on a rugged cross “a world of lost sinners was slain”. Jesus has already paid for Richardson’s sins.

Richardson fought for America and the things he saw in the war front drove him crazy. “You should be in the hospital,” Ray, a fellow prisoner tells him, “not prison.” Certainly not the electric chair. America has always claimed to be the most powerful nation on earth but they have let hate and the lust for blood becloud their judgment for so long – not really becloud their judgment, more like they built their legal system on hate.

Stevenson asks one question no one has answers to: “Why do we want to kill all the broken people?”

Not Just Mercy

Stevenson does not just want mercy because there is no moving the heart of a redneck judge where a black man is involved so he appealed to the media. He appeared on CBS’ “60 Minutes” program and rallied public opinion. Americans will show outrage when they want to and they did for this case. Stevenson rode on this rage to the Alabama Supreme Court. The court overrules the crazy county court and the case is thrown back for a retry.

At the hearing, Stevenson made a powerful speech, so powerful even the state counsel concurs. “If we say we’re committed to equal justice under law, to protecting the rights of every citizen, regardless of wealth, race, or status, then we have to end this nightmare for Walter McMillian and his family. The charges against him have been proven to be a false construction of desperate people, fueled by bigotry and bias, who ignored the truth in exchange for easy solutions, and that’s not the law. That’s not justice. That’s not right. I ask that this case be dismissed immediately, Your Honor.”

Image source: The Federalist

Amos JC

Amos JC

Amos JC is the head of movies and TV content.