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Just Mercy is a powerful argument against the death penalty

The film — based on Bryan Stevenson’s book and starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx — is flawed but vital.

Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy.
Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy.
Warner Bros.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The American practice of capital punishment is inextricably linked to much of what’s wrong with our justice system — its focus on punitive rather than restorative measures; its indisputable bias against the poor, mentally ill, and marginalized; its captivity to racial bias. These issues aren’t up for much debate.

But despite support for abolishing or at least reforming the death penalty from both progressives and a healthy number of pro-life conservatives, it’s also not something most Americans have to think about a lot. Few people find their own lives touched by the death penalty, and it’s in the best interests of its supporters not to say much about the details in public.

Since 1976, for every nine Americans executed by the state, one is exonerated and released from death row — a margin of error that should terrify us all. (And yet, after years of decline, American support for the death penalty ticked up in 2018.)

That’s precisely what Just Mercy, a true story that will set your sense of injustice ablaze, aims to change.

Just Mercy is a story of idealism that becomes tempered by reality and sharpened by injustice

Based on Bryan Stevenson’s bestselling 2014 memoir of the same name, Just Mercy tells the story of Stevenson’s early career as an attorney working to reverse wrongful convictions in Alabama and details the founding of his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative. The film focuses on the case of Walter “Johnny D” McMillian, a poor black man who was arrested in 1987 for the murder of an 18-year-old white girl and convicted based on testimony that later turned out to be fabricated. After years of legal battles, McMillian’s story became a national case, and his convictions were at last reversed in 1993.

It is a plainly infuriating story, and Just Mercy doesn’t try to disguise its most angering aspects: the racism and bias against the poor that led to McMillian’s conviction; the twisting of the pursuit of justice into the pursuit of reputation; the ways the powerful protect their own.

And the film is smartly designed to deliver its message into as many hearts as possible. Directed and co-written by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, The Glass Castle, and Marvel’s upcoming Eternals), Just Mercy stars a bevy of actors who get audiences in the door, led by Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and Brie Larson. Foxx’s performance, in particular, seems like a solid bet for an Oscar nod.

Jordan plays Stevenson, a recent Harvard Law graduate raised in Delaware who feels compelled, after completing an internship in Alabama during law school, to take the state’s bar and move south to work with death row inmates. His mother is angry at him — she’s afraid of what will happen to a black man in the deep south who dares to take on that task — but he’s full of ideals and undeterred. (He’s also driven by his faith, something the film conveys mostly through visual cues, such as when he prays with inmates, but was a big part of Stevenson’s real-life motivation.)

Stevenson arrives in Monroeville, Alabama — the county where Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, many residents, including the white district attorney, proudly inform him. People keep telling him to go to “the Mockingbird museum”; it’s “one of the most significant civil rights landmarks in the south,” the DA says.

Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan in Just Mercy.
Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan in Just Mercy.
Courtesy of TIFF

But what Stevenson finds in Monroeville is a death row full of inmates who seem to have ended up there for reasons that are less than just. Even Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) — who confesses immediately to Stevenson that he did what he’s been convicted of doing — is obviously mentally ill, suffering from PTSD following a harrowing tour of duty in Vietnam.

In reviewing his new case load along with local advocate Eva Ansley (Larson), Stevenson realizes that the conviction of one inmate in particular, McMillian (Foxx), is almost certainly wrong. The further he digs into the case, the more he realizes that it’s linked to some of Monroeville’s ugliest attitudes and secrets. The entire case against McMillian is based on testimony from a convicted murderer (Tim Blake Nelson) who was offered a plea deal in exchange for fingering McMillian.

Stevenson and Ansley know the whole thing stinks. But their quest to reverse McMillian and others’ convictions fly right in the face of the powerful, and Stevenson’s experiences with McMillian begin to change the shape of his own idealism.

Just Mercy has some key storytelling flaws, but is still worth watching

Just Mercy’s greatest strength as a film is its true story, and Cretton chooses to keep the focus on the plot. The movie is structured like a straight-ahead procedural, with all the usual beats. It’s more workmanlike than imaginatively scripted or shot, which is a little disappointing — there was certainly an opportunity to set the film apart from other procedural films or movies about death row, but this one sticks to familiar vocabulary.

And in following that template, it also falls into a distressing rut. McMillian, after all, was innocent. And it’s easy to get indignant on behalf of the wrongfully convicted.

But by dint of McMillian’s story being the easiest sell to the audience, someone like Richardson — who did in fact commit the crime — ends up as a side story, albeit one that’s powerfully told and embodied by Morgan. As the Equal Justice Initiative’s website argues, the death penalty is rooted in the practice of lynching, and there are myriad arguments, both practical and philosophical, for why people who are not innocent still ought not to be executed by the state.

2019 Toronto International Film Festival - “Just Mercy” Premiere - Red Carpet
Bryan Stevenson at the Just Mercy premiere in Toronto on September 6.
Photo by George Pimentel/Getty Images for TIFF

Still, the film's point comes across by the end: Not only is capital punishment barbaric, but the system that orchestrates it is grossly flawed. Several time, the film illustrates how the threat of the electric chair is used to coerce and intimidate people who have not even been convicted (McMillian was put on death row a year before his trial). Fear, as a tool wielded by those who enforce and enact the law, should have no place in the pursuit of justice and the protection of innocence. But it does, all the same.

And that should matter to everyone who cares about a just society. Not every American will know someone personally touched by the death penalty. But shifting how we think about capital punishment will shift the way we think about what the justice system is for. (We are, after all, governed by a president who brashly, publicly called for the execution of five teenagers in 1989, and refuses to recant even after their exoneration, saying their coerced testimonies should still be taken as fact — a rhetorical move that will seem familiar after you see Just Mercy.)

In spite of its shortcomings, Just Mercy is still the sort of film that’s worth watching and absorbing and discussing, because the story it tells has not stopped being relevant in the decades since Stevenson and McMillian met. America’s history of injustice has not gotten less dark in recent years. And we cannot willfully blind ourselves when our brothers’ and sisters’ blood continues to cry out from the ground.

Just Mercy premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. It opens in theaters on Christmas Day.

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