M, 137 Minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
It took more courage than many of us would have thought necessary 30 years ago to leave home in Delaware and get set up in Alabama as a civil rights lawyer. Fresh out of Harvard, and with backing to set up a centre for equal rights, young black lawyer Bryan Stevenson may have been surprised by the reception he received.
a welcome straight out of the Rod Steiger playbook from In the Heat of the Night
With a welcome straight out of the Rod Steiger playbook from In the Heat of the Night and threatening worse still, State forces of law and order were ready to greet the upstart Northerner with tactics of intimidation and humiliation.
Stevenson had to endure a strip search in order to visit inmates on death row. The agonising scene is played out in what feels like real time. And he was pulled over and searched with a gun to the head, before police laughed and drove away, never explaining why.
Stevenson, whose book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, is the basis for this film, is alive and kicking today. Dividing his time as executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative he founded with the responsibilities of a law professor at New York University.
He is played here by Michael B. Jordan, recently a charismatic villain in Black Panther. Here, charisma helps his character too, though not as much as the dignity, restraint and the earnestness with which Jordan has invested his role.
Brie Larson as his partner at the EJI centre, also based on an actual person, Eva Ansley, has a minor support role.
Meetings are held with inmates on death row, long-stay and short-stay guests of the Alabama Department of Corrections. Although the film doesn’t make a point of it, Stevenson reviews the cases of black and white inmates, focusing in particular on the cases of two black men, Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) and Walter ‘J. D.’ McMillian (Jamie Foxx).
without any white boss to support his alibi, he could be framed with a recent murder
Traumatised Vietnam vet, Herbert, who admits his crime, though not apparent intent, has never had adequate legal representation. Walter, on the other hand, admits nothing. He has been framed, but doesn’t expect an iota of justice in a state where you are ‘guilty the moment you are born’.
Self-employed, he had been driving his own new pick up when the police arrested him. Without any white boss to support his alibi, he could be framed with the recent murder of a white teenage girl. The judge overrode the jury’s decision that he serve life with the death sentence. Only in Alabama, apparently.
On Stevenson’s journey in search of the truth he meets Walter’s family and friends in the local black community. Walter’s alibi was solid.
Further details of the conviction emerge. The only evidence the court had permitted was that of a single key witness, a convicted felon who was coerced by police with incentives to give false evidence against Walter. Up to a dozen black American family and friends could testify he was at the fish fry fundraiser that day. African Americans were disbarred from the jury too.
It’s an ironic indictment on the corruption of legal processes in Monroe County, the very county where Harper Lee wrote her classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.
The film’s finest achievement is demonstrating just how justice can so easily and breathtakingly be perverted and just how critical legal assistance is for those who can’t afford it. They are the most vulnerable group when it comes to equality before the law.
There can’t be any doubt about the sincerity of Just Mercy, though it did not need to exceed two hours’ running time, however, to establish these points.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton co-wrote the screenplay with Andrew Lanham for this traditional courtroom drama. The eloquent and compelling arguments against corruption of legal processes and the use of capital punishment that are no doubt set out in Professor Stevenson’s book, would have been a lot of help.
It is good to read that despite the use of capital punishment rising in certain countries, the global trend is actually moving away from it. Of the US States that still have the death penalty, there’s a list, including California, Kentucky and North Carolina, that have not used it in over a decade. No, the State of Alabama isn’t there yet.
First published in the Canberra Times on 26 January 2020, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7
*Featured image: Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan in Just Mercy. Courtesy of TIFF