Guilty until proven innocent: that is the “justice system” presented to us by director Destin Daniel Cretton in this cinematic adaptation of Bryan Stevenson’s 2014 memoir, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) based in Montgomery, Alabama, has dedicated his career to overturning the wrongful convictions of African-Americans in the southern United States.
The film takes us back to the beginning of Stevenson’s career in Monroe County, Alabama in 1989. The county promotes its “progressiveness” as the home of Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, a 1960 novel about the wrongful conviction of an African-American man. Yet we soon learn that not much has changed – racism is still the de facto law of the land..
Driving home one night, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a middle-aged African-American tree feller, is stopped by the police for no apparent reason. Initially polite with the officers, he realises they have already made up their minds about him. Eventually he finds himself convicted of a murder he never committed, and languishing on death row.
In comes Stevenson (Michael B Jordan), an African-American man of a different social status. Fresh out of Harvard Law School, Stevenson has moved to Alabama to establish the EJI and bring justice to African-Americans in the rural Deep South. His journey is far from rosy: he, too, is stopped and intimidated by the police. The status quo does not want to be upended by an intruder.
Cretton does a good job of showing us how a corrupt establishment is able to pervert the course of justice through false testimonies and hysteria. Fear is the only language spoken here. The depictions of police hostility are facile, as most police officers do not resemble the bad apples shown here; nevertheless, the viewer identifies with the victim and his intercessor, and activist lawyers like Stevenson are presented as doing the Lord’s work.
Tragic as it may seem, McMillian’s story is par for the course in old Dixie. While this story takes place in Monroe County, Alabama, the Confederate flag in the bar frequented by the sheriff and his friends is a reminder that the past has not been buried – not then, and if we are to believe recent controversies over the flag, not even now. Activism may be the only way to bring justice to a lawless land.
The pace and subliminal elements throughout the film, such as the checkered shirts worn by Stevenson and his friends that parallel the prison bars seen by the African-American prisoners every day, take the viewer deep into the psyche of the activist lawyers. Unjust incarceration is not good for anyone: the sheriff eventually has a change of heart, as does an impoverished white prisoner. By probing the community to reveal the truth, Stevenson enables them to free themselves from their bigotry.
Just Mercy conveys an intellectual message through emotions, and it is likely to change the minds of the most sheltered among us.
Briefly mentioned is the role played by the EJI in starting an open dialogue about the history of lynchings across the United States. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, opened by the EJI in Montgomery in 2018, is one way to do this. Another way would be to publish the names of the lynchers and ask why the justice system let them get away with it.
Victor Stepien is a critic and Americanist. He lives in London