Hopelessness is the feeling that pervades those on Alabama’s death row. And, Just Mercy provides an accurate portrait of the despair occasioned upon, not only the Defendant, but also upon family and friends. In the midst of this miscarriage of justice arrives one Bryan Stevenson, a young Black lawyer fresh out of Harvard. From Delaware, his mother can’t understand why he would want to put his life at risk by going to Alabama in 1987.
This is one terrific true story, compelling enough that 60 Minutes did a piece on it. Per Slate, it is mostly accurate based upon two books written on the case of the State of Alabama vs Walter McMillian. I might quibble with two instances of racism against Stevenson unrelated to this case that are stuck in here, but they happened, just not here. I give Just Mercy 4 Gavels and it receives an 82% Rotten Tomatoes rating with a near-perfect 99% Audience score.
In 1986, a young white woman is killed in Alabama. Nearly one year later, the case is “solved” by the arrest of McMillian. After a trial of only one and one-half days, he is found guilty on the testimony of a felon given a deal and one other who “saw” his pickup at the scene of the crime. Given a federal grant to start the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson determines that McMillian had plenty of alibi witnesses and his pickup had no transmission at the time of death. Of course, his attorney introduces none of this at trial. The death penalty clock is ticking.
Although Jamie Foxx receives all the award nods for his performance as Walter McMillian, it is Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson who is the best of the two. Perhaps if he yelled and cussed as Adam Sandler did in Uncut Gems, he would receive more acclaim. Brie Larson is excellent, as always, as the co-founder of EJI. You have seen Tim Blake Nelson, the character actor, dozens of times. As the lying felon, he is first-rate. It is his time on the screen you will most remember.
Despite knowing early the defects in Alabama’s case, Just Mercy maintains suspense. Other death row inmates inject even more pathos into the film. Yet, despite the extreme seriousness of these cases, the parties maintain some humor, although some might call it gallows humor. Just Mercy is not just a cry against racism, but a plea for more resources to defend the poor and helpless. Stephenson and his colleagues must be commended for the work they do; all must be provided a competent defense. This film shows what happens when the system fails. In conclusion, if you like a solid criminal defense flick, here is your movie.