One of two anti-capital punishment films opening this week (see review of “Clemency” in Film and Search), “Just Mercy” also explores racism in the deep South and the work of a real-life crusading African-American lawyer who goes from a Harvard Law School education and his Delaware roots to fight for justice in Alabama. “Just Mercy” is based on the book by Bryan Stevenson, who is portrayed impressively by Michael B. Jordan.
The real case of Walter McMillan, known as Johnny D and played movingly by Jamie Foxx, is at the core of the film, which includes a clip from the CBS show “60 Minutes” blasting apart the trumped up case against McMillan. Johnny D was accused of murdering an 18-year-old white woman working at a cleaning establishment. Much of the film is harrowing, with scenes of life on death row and the execution of one of Stevenson’s clients, heartbreakingly portrayed by Rob Morgan.
In Alabama in the late 1980s, Stevenson encounters racism all around him as he quickly gets an education of every-day conditions and the attitudes of law enforcers. He joins the organization called the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), and battles alongside brave white activist Eve Ansley, played with firm commitment by Brie Larson. Every step of the way is against the odds.
Thus the film is a portrait of justice gone awry and the racism embedded in a society that, as Stevenson sees it at the time, is still affected by the history of slavery and inflicted with racism. “Just Mercy” is directed with solemnity by Destin Daniel Cretton, who wrote the screenplay with Andrew Lanham.
Among the supporting performances is the fine acting by Tim Blake Nelson as Ralph Myers, the troubled witness who after trying hard not to become further involved admits having been pressured into giving the false testimony that convicted Johnny D. His confession becomes the basis for Stevenson to fight against the establishment to free Johnny D from death row.
The film will keep you riveted to await the final outcome. At the end there is posted on screen the notation that Stevenson has been fighting for justice for 30 years, and that Equal Justice Initiative has won more than 410 cases, getting relief, reversals or freedom for inmates. A Warner Brothers release. Reviewed December 25, 2019.