‘Just Mercy’ – The Opposite of Poverty

There are moments in the courtroom drama Just Mercy that resonate deeply not for how loud and abrasive they are, but in its quiet depiction of how racism shapes expectation and human behavior. When Johnny D comes upon a fateful police blockade and knows to place open palms on the steering wheel, or when attorney Bryan Stevenson is unlawfully pulled over, the approaching patrolman already brandishing his sidearm. Both Johnny D and Mr. Stevenson are subjected to such treatment for no reason other than they’re Black. They have no choice but to comply; they endure.

Just Mercy was made available to watch for free last month and it was a movie I kept coming back to. There’s so much I want to say about race, the culture of policing, “wokeness” and passive marginalization. I don’t know how to talk about these things without the lens of film to channel my expression, and Just Mercy made for an ideal conduit.

There are no ambiguities to hide behind in the film, like the fact that this is a true story and takes place in the 90s– though you could easily swap out the time period. What’s harder to define are the racial biases that have made a home in municipal institutions, in a system meant to uphold justice. Racism doesn’t wear white hoods or ritually burn crosses, nor do the mobs lynch out in the open anymore; it dresses up in suits, wears a badge, or rebrands itself as capital punishment.

Walter McMillian a.k.a. Johnny D (a soulful and tender Jamie Foxx) has been convicted for murder. An all-white jury sentenced him to life in prison, but the judge overruled and McMillian now awaits execution for a crime he didn’t commit. McMillian’s real-life case bears alarming similarities to the wrongfully convicted today – a truth that hammers home like blunt force trauma. Director Destin Daniel Cretton doesn’t bat an eye. When you’re non-white in America, facing the law IS life and death; you are guilty until proven innocent.

The deck is mightily stacked against Bryan Stevenson, but he never wavers in the fight. Graduated from Harvard and having passed the Bar in Alabama, Stevenson aims to provide free legal counsel to death row inmates under the “Equal Justice Initiative.” It’s a noble cause befitting a noble individual, albeit an eager and green one. Stevenson’s mother hesitates at the prospect like he’s being shipped off to war. He’s headed south, where the stain of Jim Crow remains a hushed point of pride, so in many ways he is.

When Stevenson pulls up to the county prison, he stops upon rows of inmates working the fields, shackled and under watchful guard. He may as well be Django, Jamie Foxx’s character and valiant hero of Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 revisionist fantasy. But this is no Western or over-the-top revenge film. This is America, where we are never as far from slavery and segregation than we think.

Michael B. Jordan is damn impeccable casting. Jordan previously portrayed Oscar Grant, the innocent man shot by the BART transit police in Ryan Coogler’s devastating debut Fruitvale Station, and recently played Erik Killmonger – the revolutionary villain of Marvel’s Afrofuturistic superhero odyssey in Coogler’s latest. This intertextuality is knowingly embedded in the film, where an actor’s past roles collide at an intersection of filmic and socio-political subtext. Granted, you’re not required to see these additional films prior. But considering that Jordan’s casting is a deliberate one, the knowledge and progression of his previous films provides a richer, weightier viewing. (For maximum impact, check out Ava DuVernay’s 13th, in which the real-life Bryan Stevenson is featured.)

Jordan trades in his usual swagger for do-gooding earnestness, and electric speechifying for the methodical and understated. (Marvel alum Brie Larson is little more than an extended cameo as E.J.I. co-founder Eva Ansley, but otherwise has a blast sporting a southern accent.) The film wholeheartedly endorses the by-the-book due diligence of Stevenson’s underdog fight, in truth triumphing over bigotry. He adheres to the written law like scripture, operating within legal frameworks and precedents, never in spite of them – like pitting a “just” system against itself. Stevenson’s steadfastness is rousing to see because the south and larger prison culture never evolved past the 1950s.

Monroeville takes pride in being the hometown of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a common retort in Stevenson’s conversations with locals and other officers of the courts. “Go see the Mockingbird museum, it’s a landmark civil rights establishment,” the DA says to him, like a self-pat on the back. The town appears to never have read To Kill a Mockingbird or perhaps conveniently forgot the lessons of Tom Robinson’s trial – a Black man wrongfully accused. Or maybe the town only cares that the book won a Pulitzer. Atticus Finch, it seems, is just a fictional hero and not a level of integrity to aspire to.

As Stevenson identifies grave errors in McMillian’s case, he’s repeatedly stonewalled by the DA and treated like a nuisance, an outcast rather than an equal. Fighting for a Black man’s justice is such a fringe, radical idea that Stevenson is scorned and dehumanized just for doing his job. While meeting clients at the prison, a guard subjects him to unwarranted strip-search. Naked, the guard mocks him further: “Now bend over and spread.”

You can feel his soul shattering then steeling itself, this instinct to internalize either learned or self-taught. His stoicism in these moments underlies a harsh truth, that he as a Black man cannot raise his voice or break composure like we’d expect from Adonis Creed. Many have been imprisoned or killed for far less. Too much is at stake. Stevenson can’t fight for his clients if he winds up behind those same bars. He’s confined in that sense; he has to put up with the racist jabs of his peers and can only go toe-to-toe with them in the cross-examination of the courts if he is to push for long-term, meaningful change.

It’s with brutal irony that McMillian’s retrial rests on Ralph Myers (an insanely game Tim Blake Nelson) – a criminal of all people. It was Myers’ forced testimony that led to McMillian’s conviction. Myers recants knowing full well he’ll experience further retaliation in prison. He owes McMillian nothing – never having met or exchanging a word – yet Stevenson is able to appeal to Myers’ humanity, not the stubborn sheriff or DA whom woefully disregarded the welfare of McMillian’s family in the name of a community’s “safety.” Minnie, McMillian’s wife, lays out the paradox with haunting echoes to today: “You can be in your own house, minding your own business, surrounded by your entire family, and they’ll still put a murder on you.” Which community, then, would that be?

The notion of swift punishment over due process has profound consequences. Herbert Richardson, a Vietnam war veteran who suffers from PTSD, faces the electric chair for a bombing that killed a young woman. Stevenson attempts to delay his execution citing his teetering psychological state and arguing the need for treatment, not incarceration. Richardson is instead made an example of, illustrated with heartbreaking clarity by actor Rob Morgan. It’s the film’s most devastating gut punch rendered with the force of a sledgehammer. What else is a black man’s execution if not a state-sanctioned lynching?

Just Mercy never explains why Stevenson is in this fight nor probes why he cares so deeply. The film shows how impossible it is for him not to care. By extension, how can we feign indifference when the law coerces testimony, forgoes evidence and absolves itself of any moral obligation to the truth? McMillian’s case becomes a bigger battle than either character realizes, because it’s not Stevenson or McMillian who needs redeeming – it’s the system.

The same guard who harassed Stevenson will later show compassion toward McMillian and his family. It’s a small gesture, but one true to Destin Cretton’s strengths as a humanist storyteller. The Short Term 12 director believes in places shaping people and vice versa. Most of all, Cretton believes in the stubbornness of humanity, that while we can learn prejudices, we can unlearn them and embrace compassion; that we are capable of cruelty, and mercy. Behind the two nonetheless lies a human heart. McMillian may have lost faith in the system, but through Stevenson, he regains his faith in people.

There is an aching sadness in how long the real-life Stevenson has had to keep up this fight, which in some ways feels like a losing battle. The film ends with a shocking note, that 1 in 9 executions were found to be innocent. By some miracle, Stevenson continues to practice law today, doing so not in spite of a broken system, but out of pure empathy for the poor, the underprivileged, and misrepresented. “The opposite of poverty isn’t wealth,” Stevenson says in his iconic proverb. “The opposite of poverty is justice.”

McMillian was that 1 in 9, and there is something so indisputably rousing about his watershed victory. His exoneration signaled something in Alabama’s death row that hadn’t existed prior: hope. Even the smallest victories are tremendously felt, and right now, we could all use a win.

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