“Just Mercy” • Movie
Law Drama Inspired
by True Events
By Douglas Davidson, elementsofmadness.com
on April 10,
"The truth may not set the man free, but
his soul will no longer be bound."
Just Mercy dramatizes a real-life injustice with solid
performances, a steady directorial hand, and enough urgency to overcome a
certain degree of earnest advocacy. --Rotton
These are meaty topics that make
Just Mercy a frequently hard watch ... but because where Just Mercy leaves its
audience emotionally is very much relevant today. --Elements of
In June of 1987, Walter “Johnny D” McMillian was
arrested by Sherriff Tom Tate of Monroeville, Alabama, for the
murder of eighteen-year-old Ronda Morrison.
case had been unsolved for a year and Tate was keen to close
it. Placed on death row before he was even sentenced, McMillian
would remain there until March 1993. For the better part of six years, McMillian
was held accountable for charges the evidence could not support.
was he imprisoned? The answer is both easy and hard: the color of his skin.
Adapted from the bestselling book Just
Mercy, written by McMillian’s lawyer and the head of
the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) Bryan
Stevenson, the film of the same name introduces
McMillian’s case and Stevenson’s rising
journey, following both during that six year period.
Destin Daniel Cretton (Short
Term 12) and adapted by Andrew Lanham (The Glass
Castle), Just Mercy is a painful
yet hopeful tale of what justice should look like: equal in the face of all.
The terrible truth is that the same personal angst that put
McMillian behind bars remains just as present when the film hit
theaters in 2019, as it did in 1987. For those, however, who remain optimistic,
who understand that vigilance is a constant, the special features included in
the home release may offer a pleasant jolt to the psyche with a reminder that
you are not alone.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton and
actors Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx on the set of JUST
Just Mercy dramatizes
the several years between McMillian’s arrest, Stevenson’s journey from law
school intern to founder of the EJI, and the profound impact
that working with McMillian and other death row inmates had on
Stevenson. It’s a film that is packed with incredible talent
(Oscar-winner Jamie Fox,
Michael B. Jordan, Oscar-winner
Brie Larson, Rob
Morgan, O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Rafe
Spall) and whose message remains painfully timely.
makes no difference how you feel about the death penalty and you’d be remiss to
think that that is the focus of the film. Lanham’s script focuses on the fact that some of
the people facing a death sentence don’t actually deserve it, that the
punishment may fit the crime, but not the context. This is why the film doesn’t
just focus on McMillian, portrayed by Foxx,
but on Herbert Richardson, portrayed by
Morgan, and a bit on Anthony Hinton, portrayed
by Jackson, Jr.
would certainly be compelling as a law drama if it were to only track
McMillian’s journey, except there’s a larger story of systemic
prejudice against the Black community, the inequity of the justice system, and a
failure to acknowledge context within the law. These are meaty topics
that make Just Mercy a frequently
hard watch, not because the actors do such an impressive job of conveying the
real circumstances of these very real man or the fact that Cretton somehow makes this major studio project
possess the spirit of an indie picture, but because where Just Mercy leaves its audience emotionally is very
much relevant today.
O’Shea Jackson, Jr. as Anthony
Hinton in JUST MERCY.
The approach to Just Mercy shouldn’t surprise as
Cretton made a name for himself with 2013’s critical darling
Short Term 12, featuring a cast of
mostly unknowns including Larson, LaKeith Stanfield, Rami Malek, Stephanie
Beatriz, Kaitlyn Dever, and John Gallagher Jr. He’s a
director who clearly knows how to work with his cast, pulling out the best from
them, and making it clear where the audience should place their focus.
Unlike how Clint Eastwood
directed Richard Jewell, the other law drama released in 2019,
Cretton didn’t approach the tale
with a wide lens, instead favoring close-ups and mid-range shots for virtually
every scene. Where Eastwood’s use of wider
shots often conveyed the expansive pressure Richard Jewell
faced under his scrutiny, Cretton’s tight direction imposes a
feeling of intimacy between the audience and the characters. We see all the lines on the faces, the subtle glances, and
kinesthetic responses. We, the audience, begin to feel the psychological
pressure that is presented before us, as though the film extends itself beyond
the screen, beckoning us to try to consider a point of view we may not have
before, to consider a perspective kept hidden from our everyday lives, to
remember that removing humanity from the justice system does not generate more
justice, but sorrow and hopelessness.
Rob Morgan and director Destin
Daniel Cretton on the set of JUST MERCY.
One aspect of
Just Mercy that deeply surprises is
how the film doesn’t preach, but presents. With the exception of three speeches
given by Jordan’s Stevenson within the context of courtroom,
this reviewer fails to think of a moment when a character prostrates another,
thereby giving the audience a lecture. Instead, the
combination of Lanham’s script, Cretton’s
direction, and cast performances materializes into something less grand and more
human, exploring the persistent nature of hateful people to ignore their
prejudices and the resilience of a people to overcome accusations, slurs,
violence, and more upon their bodies, yet fear losing their souls.
Take the case of Hinton, a man arrested because the
officer though he looked guilty in his mug shot. He would not get exonerated for
30 years. Or, tragically, Richardson, a military veteran who
came home from Vietnam suffering from PTSD and, during an
episode, killed someone with a bomb. Rather than sending him for psychological
evaluation upon his return or after the incident, Richardson was left without
treatment on death row.
The film suggests that both
men, while one was certainly guilty of murder, ended up where they did simply
because of geography (the deep South) and the color of their skin. The key thing is that it suggests. It does not scream, it does not
wail, it presents evidence after new evidence, and asks the audience if they,
too, come to the same conclusion. If not, it hopes
for them to ask themselves why.
McMillian’s case is the most compelling as an obviously
innocent man framed for murder. Yet, even within that aspect of the film, the
story seems as fine with a negative outcome as a positive one, if only because,
as presented by Foxx’s performance, the truth of the events
finally comes out. The truth may not set the man
free, but his soul will no longer be bound.
Rob Morgan as Herbet Richardson in
For those looking for more information on the
film, be advised that the included special features are as unique as the film.
Perhaps seeing the film as an opportunity to inform, there’s an eight-minute
featurette headlined by Bryan Stevenson expanding on how the
EJI began, what it is, and how it’s expanded. Considering it
began as two people with federal funding unable to get someone to rent them
office space, the fact that the EJI now includes The
Legacy Museum, a place which seeks to acknowledge and remember the
legacy of the Black community is extraordinary. Six-minute featurette
“This Moment Deserves” focuses on both
Stevenson and Jordan, each taking the time to
talk about the film, the events that inspired the film, and what it was like for
each of them in making Just Mercy.
The least emotionally weighted of the featurettes is “Making
Mercy,” a four-minute behind the scenes look at making the movie. What
makes it so light is that rather than focusing exclusively on the principle cast
and crew, “Making” also interviews interns, production accountant, grips, and
If you didn’t get the indie vibe from the film, “Making” certainly
seals the deal. From the single featurette, it becomes clear
that filming Just Mercy wasn’t just about the stars, but about
the story, one which connected with literally everyone
Behind the scenes look at the set
of JUST MERCY.
It is, certainly, a bit of a curiosity
that Just Mercy didn’t play as well
with audiences. As of this writing, audience and critic
scores on Rotten Tomatoes are high, suggesting that the film was received well,
despite not making an impression during awards season. Then again, any film coming out in the year of Parasite, Once Upon
a Time …in Hollywood, Jojo Rabbit, and The Irishman was likely to
The shame of it is that as
bittersweet a cinematic experience as Just
Mercy is, there’s enough positive within it
to motivate others to jump in. Perhaps it’ll see an extended life on home
video, especially when so many are locked indoors looking for something to