In the heart of awards season arrives Just Mercy, a harrowing and heartfelt legal drama that scathingly indicts the inherent racist inequalities of capital punishment in this country. The story of young, idealistic lawyer Bryan Stevenson and his fight for a wrongly convicted death row inmate in Alabama, the film from Destin Daniel Cretton doesn’t so much ask tough questions as it exposes them inadvertently. With so many films attempting to tell stories of Black oppression and triumph, we have to ponder whether its enough when a film impassions its audience if that same film isn’t willing to put anyone in that audience in an uncomfortable place or challenging that audience to look deeper at itself.
Much discussion has surrounded recent dramas like Harriet and Queen and Slim, very different films that both tackle the trauma racism has wrought on Black Americans; the subject of Black pain and who its depiction is intended for is especially pertinent. There’s always validity in telling such stories, but when Black pain is on the big screen—who are we hoping to be most affected by what’s being shared?
On November 1, 1986. Ronda Morrison was found shot to death at a dry cleaner in Monroeville, Alabama (home of Harper Lee and the setting of To Kill A Mockingbird, as numerous locals share with Stevenson upon his arrival in town). Local man Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx) is taken into custody. His case was flagrantly corrupted from the moment of his arrest: he was remanded to death row in Alabama’s Holmon State Prison before he even went to trial, he was charged with capital murder even though numerous witnesses verified that he was at a church fish fry the morning of the murder. He was convicted with no physical evidence, mostly on the testimony of a white convicted felon (Tim Blake Nelson) who’d made a deal with the prosecution. As newly-minted Harvard law graduate Bryan Stevenson, Michael B. Jordan pushes through racism (both the systemic and mortally threatening varieties) with the expected naivete and passion of a northerner who’s come South to make a change. Having worked on death row in Georgia, Stevenson founds the Equal Justice Initiative to help provide defense for death row inmates who may have been wrongly convicted and sets about his fight—earning skepticism and outright hate along the way. The movie doesn’t dwell on the particulars of developing the EJI too heavily (we learn early on Stevenson isn’t charging anyone but not exactly how he landed funding) except for his recruitment of local legal eagle Eva Ansley (Brie Larson).
Having already garnered a Screen Actors Guild Best Supporting Actor nomination, Jamie Foxx’s performance is one of his best in years; he imbues Walter “Johnny D” McMillian with both a weary rage and a quiet strength, a man who doesn’t deny his anger but who hasn’t become entirely consumed by it. And who, upon meeting Michael B. Jordan’s young Bryan Stevenson, has dared to allow himself to hope. As far as storytelling, it’s worth noting that McMillian’s forgiveness for his oppressors is present but not centered—moreso is his compassion for men like him, stranded on death row for varying reasons, fighting for some semblance of dignity in the face of doom.
Jordan’s best moments are when the easy chemistry between he and Foxx are allowed to shine. Just Mercy presents his Stevenson as unfailingly noble; his good intentions and earnest ideals are almost his sole characterization. But in Stevenson’s reverential characterization, from his fight to maintain dignity even after a dehumanizing strip search and his level-headed reaction to racist local cops pulling him over just to aim their guns at him, the film wants you to be inspired by him more than it wants you to relate to him. He remains mostly unflappable; Jordan works hard to suggest a cauldron of pain and anger just beneath the surface. It’s a shame the writing seems to work deliberately to keep so much of that subdued. The emotional stakes are mostly conveyed through McMillian’s family; his son explodes in rage during a hearing as the judge sends his father back to prison; there’s a tragic pain in McMillan’s wife Minnie (Karan Kendrick)—the hurt when she acknowledges her husband’s infidelity is just as sincere as it is when a judge denies Stevenson’s motion for a retrial even after promising testimony indicated things were swinging their way. The human toll of a system designed to work against Black people is what fuels Stevenson and drives the story.
For all of its effective drama, the film often relies on familiar beats. The phoned death threats, the shadowy traffic stops, a Northern do-gooder drawing contempt in a small southern town, his small-but-devoted team of fellow crusaders—most of this movie’s target audience knows these tropes well. And that represents what makes for the frustrating quandary for such films: are these stories meant to enrage, inform or absolve? Just Mercy is committed to reminding you of just how skewed death sentences are, and how poor Black people are disproportionately affected. But how often do storytellers opt for the rousing as opposed to the radical; content to offer evidence of racism that doesn’t allow for anyone to acknowledge their justifiable rage or, conversely, force anyone to recognize their own culpability?
Casting the primary antagonist of racism in easy, hissable villains like a dishonest sheriff or a two-faced prosecutor only helps to divorce everyone in the audience from how they themselves can be complicit in the racist oppression of those around them. In going for the heartstrings, we can let ourselves off the hook. When a shady litigator’s wife looks at him with scorn after realizing his hand in convicting an innocent men, it’s an example of how such films let the audience get away with relating to the wife’s disdain—as opposed to forcing them to think about how such a wife may have known, enabled or encouraged the tactics of a husband she loved. With these easy villains, everybody gets to go “look at those racists over there,” without being forced to question if they themselves are just as complicit in what goes on in their own communities.
Just Mercy is at its most affecting when the story focuses on the iniquity of the criminal justice system and the insidiousness of the death penalty. The exchanges between Foxx’s McMillan and fellow death row inmates Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) and Herbert Richardson (an excellent Rob Morgan) provide the film’s emotional heartbeat, particularly as his fellow inmates attempt to help Morgan’s Richardson grapple with the horrors of his past and the inevitability of his future.
Black pain, like all human experience, can make for compelling storytelling but also cathartic release. What complicates that is the machinations of mainstream Hollywood’s approach to storytelling; when films express or expose that pain, we all have to determine just for whom that cathartic release is allowed. Stories of Black pain that dwell too heavily on making sure no one in the audience is uncomfortable can encourage white denial, or stroke a sense of redemption for those who still enjoy tremendous privilege in a society steeped in racism. Just Mercy says a lot about a corrupted and racist system, but what we see in it says a lot more about us.