Just Mercy

Co-written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton best known for 2013’s Short Term 12 and 2017’s The Glass House, Just Mercy follows the template of a rather typical legal drama that rises above the rest through its emotionally powerful moments brought to life by a terrific cast telling a true story. The plot revolves around a recent Harvard Law graduate named Bryan Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan in one of his best performances, who decides to move to Montgomery, Alabama in the late 1980s to set up a pro bono legal organization to help Alabama inmates get off death row. With the help of a local activist who is played by Oscar winner Brie Larson, the passionate Stevenson creates the Equal Justice Initiative out of a sense of idealism in what he quickly discovers is a very hostile environment to pursue legal justice for death row inmates, especially African American men, in the historically racial discriminatory South. At first, he encounters resistance from the incarcerated individuals themselves who have largely given up on the judicial system to give them a reprieve from the death penalty. Eventually, Stevenson is able to convince Walter McMillian nicknamed Johnny D., played by Oscar winner Jamie Foxx in one of his best recent performances, to fight his flawed conviction and sentencing to death for the murder of a young white woman in the small town of Monroeville, Alabama in 1987. Stevenson, whose 2014 memoir of the same name is the basis for the film, works tirelessly to overturn what he soon realizes is McMillian’s wrongful conviction; as an African American from an impoverished rural community himself, Stevenson struggles personally with the case because he knows he could have been treated just like McMillian. The filmmaker does a good job of recreating the real courtroom drama that took place over several appeals and trials to exonerate McMillian. Outside of the legal process in Alabama that still is full of systemic racism, Stevenson, along with Brie Larson’s unfortunately underdeveloped character, must also deal with the outside world in which they often face death threats and menacing police officers following them. As the audience sees through Jordan’s excellent acting and ability to develop the character, Stevenson is clearly burdened by the unjust treatment of inmates who he gets to know on a personal level and sheds several layers of his optimism in the face of such adversity. Overall, I found it to be a thought-provoking drama that delves deep into the contentious issue of the death penalty and particularly how it relates to racial discrimination; the movie quite effectively presents the problems with the justice system by telling a true story with talented actors able to convey the story’s impactful message.

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