Release Date: December 25, 2019
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton | MPAA Rating: PG-13 | LeavittLens Rating: 7/10
There is a simultaneous simplicity and complexity to the sin of racism in our world. In the first sense, it seems obvious and even unnecessary to write: to the American, “all people are created equal,” to the Christian and the Jew, the “imago Dei,” to the humanist, the self-evident idea of “human rights.” Quite obviously, it is inherently wrong to violate or oppress any person based on color or creed. Yet, in the second sense, we know that evil finds ways to pervade our world regardless, worming its way into our systems to mask its vile flavor. Indeed, if we find such evil in the individual human heart, we should fully expect it to latch onto all human endeavors, a parasitic virus in our schools, our governments, our banks, and our courtrooms. Yes, evil begins with one twisted soul, but it does not remain there; it weaves its way into the warp and weft of our world as that twisted souls are given power and authority. This means, then, that it is not just our role to change the heart (though it is); it is our responsibility to transform the systems that the heart produces. This is a heavier, harder, longer work, and the true story that fuels Just Mercy admirably leads the viewer along the path toward restitution.
After graduating from Harvard law school, young and driven lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) chooses to commit himself to the representation of those who cannot afford–or are not given–adequate legal representation. His journey takes him from Delaware to Alabama, a state he quickly finds to be rife with wrongful convictions, over-harsh sentences, and unapologetic injustice. Working alongside him is Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), a young devoted mother whose steadfast compassion moves from her own family into the lives of the oppressed in her community. While not given much to work with, Larson provides a likable companion for Jordan’s Stevenson; she embodies a woman motivated for justice, a refreshing change of pace from the typically sexualized and dependent-on-men female protagonist of common storytelling.
Stevenson begins his work by interviewing a slew of men on death row, and intentionally devotes himself to knowing them first. He looks them in the eyes and hears their stories and he earnestly studies their case files, doing what many of them say no lawyer has done for them before: he affirms their humanity. One such interviewee, Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx), is a bit more cynical about this idealistic upstart. This man knows the broader powers that have placed him behind bars; he knows the seventeen witnesses that confirmed his alibi for the murder of a young white girl; he knows the corrupt sheriff more concerned with confirming a predetermined narrative than finding justice. Understandably, Walter sees little hope in this bright-eyed and naive northern savior.
The relationship between Bryan and Walter proceeds to drive the film moving forward, to mixed–though largely positive–results. There is an understated nature to Just Mercy, perhaps indicative of Bryan Stevenson’s own quiet focus, which both allows the story to come to life and also, at times, prevents it from hitting the emotional complexity of similar films (for a recent, more potent example, see the 2019 Sundance winner Clemency). Jordan embodies Stevenson effectively, with eyes that look beyond the brokenness of the immediate and into a transcendent, impending justice. Yet he is limited by the script at times, kept largely as a caricature for hope. We never see Bryan break under the immense weight of the burden he has undertaken, and therefore are only able to view him as a beacon of integrity, eschewing complex humanity for simplified preaching. In this way, the struggle for justice is more said than shown, at times spoon-feeding the audience with a message rather than incarnating it through Bryan. Foxx is given a bit more to work with, and ironically finds his acting freedom in his prison scenes. Caged by whitewashed bars and clothed in all-white jumpsuits, an overt symbol in a film full of them, Foxx and his fellow death-row inmates–Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) and Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan)–bring the audience into their prison with them. Their conversations create a sense of solidarity that much of the rest of the film lacks; where Bryan’s work is something to support from a distance, Walter and the inmate’s experiences are something to participate in up close.
We find the culmination of this participatory compassion in one of the more powerful supporting performances of the year: Rob Morgan, playing Vietnam veteran and PTSD-suffering Herbert “Herb” Richardson, shines in every second of screen time. It is in Herb that we find the multi-layered experience of racism in America, for we see that it does not consist simply of isolated events. Given the well-documented abuses of the Vietnam war on black servicemen, it becomes clear that Herb has been shattered largely by things beyond his control, and his actions–never excused or justified in the film–are shown to be the result of a greater brokenness beyond his own individual experience. That same system, corrupted by utter inhumanity, sends him to his death, revealing the real stakes of capital punishment. As the “Old Rugged Cross” plays, we find it made manifest in the electric chair: a tyrannical torture device used by an Empire at the expense of the oppressed and downtrodden. It is this scene that makes the audience question their own assumptions on justice and what it really means.
It is in these moments that Just Mercy shines, and ultimately lives up to its title. In a paradoxical turn, it brings into focus a pertinent question for our present justice system: is it possible that mercy may be the most just action to take? Could it be that restitution can conquer over and against retribution? Can we find, under a canopy of pine trees blacking out the sky, a blue and brilliant hope? Just as Bryan’s rearview mirror reflects upon his eyes as he drives through the Alabama night, illuminating his sight in spite of the darkness around him, we as an audience are challenged to open our eyes, to hear the stories, to fight for justice with a radical hope that transcends our broken systems. Maybe then we will see what just a little mercy can do.