Boasting an 83 percent critic score and a well-deserved 99 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, the film “Just Mercy” does an excellent job of portraying the horrors of American criminal justice. The film follows the story of the African American Harvard Law School graduate Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) in his noble journey for changing the criminal justice system.
Based on Stevenson’s memoir, the film depicts his struggle with the institutionalized government prejudice in Alabama that worked against him and his clients almost every step of the way. After two hours, I walked out of the theater with ruined makeup and absolute confidence that “Just Mercy” is one of the best films exposing the American legal system.
The film begins with a scene of a hot summer night during June 1987 in Monroeville, Alabama. Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a black pulpwood worker, was driving home from a long day of hard labor when a brigade of cop cars blocked the road, forcing him to stop.
To his complete surprise, the cops were waiting to arrest him for the murder of Rhonda Morrison, an 18-year-old white woman who had been killed more than six months earlier in November 1986. McMillian, who goes by Johnny D, ends up on death row after a jury — made up of 11 white people and one black person — found him guilty. But he was innocent.
Legal System Resists a Fresh Set of Eyes
Stevenson enters the film as a freshly barred Harvard law graduate with a mission to provide legal defense to Alabamans on death row. From the moment he arrived, he poured every waking hour into building a successful nonprofit law clinic, Equal Justice Initiative. He was determined to help Johnny D and other Alabamans. But it wasn’t an easy path. Alabama was not a welcoming place to a man like Stevenson, who was an outsider, and in their eyes was coming to the south to mess with the societal order.
Even before the official clinic was set up, Stevenson and his clinic director Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) ran into trouble. They were denied from renting office space from multiple landlords who didn’t approve of the work they were doing. They received at least one bomb threat after rumors spread about their presence in the community.
Stevenson was wrongfully pulled over and harassed by cops, who illegally searched his car to no avail. When visiting clients in prison, despite his status as a lawyer who was visiting for strictly legal purposes, guards forced Stevenson to submit to strip searches, a humiliating practice usually reserved for actual security concerns. Despite the emotional and mental stress this caused, Stevenson and Ansley prevailed in their quest to help the helpless.
The Birthplace of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’
There is blazing irony surrounding the prejudiced behavior Stevenson — and his clients — experienced in the town of Monroeville. Monroeville is the birthplace of the American literary classic and Pulitzer Prize winner “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee. The novel depicts the historical racial inequality and injustice in the legal system. And to this day, the townspeople of Monroeville take great pride as the origin city of the book that’s read so widely across America to teach young people about civil rights.
But “Just Mercy” exposes the great paradox of the town’s civil rights pride by showing just how discriminatory their legal system actually was, fired by racism with little regard for the poor. While the affluent white residents celebrated the book’s notoriety, their indigent black neighbors were being thrown in prison without adequate legal representation or fair court proceedings.
The film explores race and poverty through personal stories that leave the audience to reconcile with the tragic side of American governments’ treatment of minorities and the poor. As Stevenson fought for Johnny D, his caseload grew. The amount of injustice his clients were facing in Monroeville was appalling.
The state sentenced a clearly mentally ill veteran to death, when he should’ve been hospitalized for his illness. They convicted people on coerced and faulty testimony. They withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense. The list of injustices goes on and on. The Equal Justice Initiative proved to be the only hope for many Alabamans who were either too poor to afford adequate legal counsel at the time of their conviction, or were discriminated against for the color of their skin, or both.
A Call for Compassion and Reform
Compassion is a clear theme of the film. Stevenson’s story leads the audience to empathize with the most vulnerable members of society at the mercy of the all-powerful legal system. As a graduate from one of the best law schools in the nation, Stevenson could’ve chosen a path of big law, chasing power or money along the way. Instead, he applied his Ivy League education to something far bigger than himself.
It didn’t come without mental, emotional, and financial sacrifices, which he conquered alongside the mountains of legal work. By sharing his story, he showed the world what great things can be achieved with a benevolent heart and strong determination. Aside from the magnitude of criminal justice issues displayed in the film, this message alone is reason enough to go see it.
Stevenson’s book and film ultimately call for reform in the legal system. It does this by captivating the audience and stimulating strong human emotions through storytelling. And the film accomplished this despite the complex nature of the legal system that is so entrenched in the heart of the story — but not without some campy spots.
The theme of injustice is pushed in viewers’ faces as an important facet of the story, but is done so with some unrealistic corny courtroom arguments. But considering this is a film meant to entertain, there’s room for justification.
Slightly Cartoonish Portrayal of the ‘Bad Guys’
While it was Stevenson’s story to tell, the film misses the mark on showing viewers any perspective from the government side. There’s little insight into the struggles of the prosecution or the heavy weight judges and law enforcement must have felt when a brand-new lawyer was questioning their work.
Without this narrative, prosecutors and local law enforcement involved in Johnny D’s conviction are portrayed as self-serving and corrupt, which isn’t a great way to motivate reform. It’s important to consider the very real pressure they felt and to show that by doing the right thing, they were bound to be labeled as fraudulent by an unforgiving society.
The purpose of the film was to tell a side of the story that some Americans aren’t often exposed to: the behind the scenes work of a defense attorney dealing with injustice. Overall, it did a great job of accomplishing this despite the moments it left out.
The film serves a good reminder that for changing hearts and minds, facts and statistics can only go so far — storytelling is often far more persuasive. Whether good or bad, emotions are compelling in guiding decision making, and if the goal is changing people’s minds about the criminal justice system, “Just Mercy” is an excellent example of what to do.
The most astounding part of “Just Mercy” is that the Equal Justice Initiative is still operating successfully in Alabama to this day. It’s not just a story from the past, it’s a reality that continues to exist in order to help real people like Johnny D.
America has a long way to go to achieve a fully just criminal system, and without exposing its faults, public ignorance to the inherent problems will block change. “Just Mercy” dispels this knowledge problem by forcing the audience to examine the truths of the legal system, something that holds power over every single one of us. Stevenson’s story deserves respect, and is absolutely worth a few hours of your time.