On his recent Sunday morning program, “GPS, the Global Public Square,” the erudite host Fareed Zakaria’s recommendation for his “book of the week” feature was Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” noting how this nonfiction 2014 book was so right for this time of social unrest. Furthermore, he said, “It documents the unfairness of the American criminal justice system with balance, empathy and even grace.” What Mr. Zakaria could have also noted that this esteemed book was the basis for Destin Daniel Cretton’s fascinating and influential 2019 film, also named “Just Mercy.” This hidden gem starred Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson.
The film is based on the heroic efforts of Bryan Stevenson, an African American, Harvard educated lawyer, who forgoes opportunities with lucrative law firms to defend wrongly condemned death row inmates to seek justice in Monroe County, Alabama in 1987. Cretton and Andrew Lanham wrote the film’s screenplay.
In the opening scenes, we witness Stevenson (Jordan) is as an ambitious law school intern working with clients who were wrongly convicted of various felonies. Two years later, after finishing his studies and passing the bar, Stevenson leaves his parents’ home in Delaware to set up a legal services organization called the Equal Justice Initiative in Georgia to aid death row inmates, with the help of activist Eva Ansley (Larson), to receive justice with fair legal assistance.
In his first weeks in Georgia, he meets a group of death row inmates, including Walter “Jimmy D” McMillian (Foxx), a pulpwood worker, who was falsely accused and convicted of killing Rhonda Morrison, an 18-year-old white woman. The pessimistic McMillian initially rejects Stevenson officious manner and legal strategies, noting, “All they gonna do is eat you alive and spit you out, just like every other black man they do when they step out of line.”
Yet, after spending a whole night looking over court documents and police records related to McMillian’s case, Stevenson is firmly convinced the state relied on a dubious witness’ testimony from an ex-con who was seeking a plea deal.
Monroeville, Alabama is the home of Harper Lee, the famed author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the landmark novel about the crusading lawyer Atticus Finch who sought justice for a wrongly accused man of color. In his first several days in town, Stevenson is continuously reminded by the locals to check out the “Mockingbird Museum.”
Within days as Stevenson begins interviewing court witnesses on the Morrison murder case, he becomes quickly aware local police are following his moves, and he even becomes physically harassed by two local police one night in a not-so-random traffic stop. Even the local sheriff, the state prosecutor Tom Chapman, and other police officials become belligerent. As Jimmy D becomes cooperative with Stevenson’s appeal plans, Bryan reveals to him why he became a lawyer. His grandfather was murdered over a television set, and no one cared.
When Stevenson finally attempts to interview the state’s key witness, an imprisoned convict named Ralph Myers, he is initially uncooperative, even when confronted with a transcript of a recorded confession in which Myers admits he lied about Jimmy D’s involvement (never used in court). Myers slowly begins to cooperate with Stevenson.
Another wrongly convicted inmate Stevenson attempts to get justice is a war veteran who is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder named Herb Richardson (Rob Morgan). After a writ of stay of execution is denied, Richardson admits, “It’s been a strange day. More people asked me how they could help me today than they ever asked my whole life.” In one of the film’s most compelling scenes, the victimized Richardson is executed in an electric chair before a room of media onlookers. Throughout the prison, fellow inmates chant for Herb, and suddenly a loud jolt of power ends the man’s life.
The wheels of justice move very slowly in Alabama before Jimmy D gets his day in court. After the publicity of a CBS “60 Minutes” feature focusing on the case hosted by Ed Bradley, the complete truth is revealed before the Supreme Court of Alabama in 1993.
Michael B. Jordan, who moviegoers may know from the famous “Creed” films and as the villainous Erik Killmonger in Marvel’s “Black Panther,” is such a compelling serious actor. And as the story’s unfortunate victim Jimmy D McMillian, the Oscar-winning Jamie Foxx’s is once more simply outstanding.
“Just Mercy” was released in late December and never seemed to find an audience before the modern movie theatre shut down. Fortunately, it is now streaming for free on several services during June.