Review By Ethan Westerfield
“The Heart of the Truth”
Destin Daniel Cretton retells the remarkable true story of how defense attorney Bryan Stevenson worked to appeal an innocent man’s case who was wrongfully accused and sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. Just Mercy may be set between the years of 1988 and 1993, but it still manages to stand as a powerful reflection of the times we live in. The film critiques and puts on full display the many flaws that are deeply rooted within the United States justice system which are still rarely ever being addressed. Just Mercy is a film that will undoubtedly break your heart and lift your spirits all throughout its two hours and sixteen-minute runtime. The entire cast and crew have united together to create a work of art that will certainly make audiences look themselves in the mirror and reflect for years to come.
Just Mercy begins by introducing us to Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) as he performs his lumber work for his own personal business. The day eventually comes to a close and as he sees himself driving back to his house, he is pulled over and unjustly arrested by a police officer with little to no questions asked and immediately put on death row. The film then transitions over to a young Bryan Stevenson (Michal B. Jordan) and we get to witness his first visit on an internship to go and speak with an inmate on death row. Through this initial exchange, Bryan builds a connection and finds much in common with this inmate; one that most would see on the street and cross to the other side for. It is at this moment, that Bryan discovers what his true passion is. We fast forward a few years and pick up with Bryan who is now moving down to the state of Alabama to begin his work in forming the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) alongside Eva Ansley (Brie Larson). Some minor conflicts arise during the process causing the pair to begin their work outside of Eva’s home.
One of the first cases they pick up is none other than Walter McMillian’s case. When Bryan enters Holman State Prison, he meets with several death row inmates before taking a seat and having a chat with Walter. Walter maintains his innocence during the entire duration of their meeting prompting Bryan to pick up the case and begin his work. Throughout the entirety of Just Mercy, we follow along with Bryan as he dives deeper into the well of Ronda Morrison’s murder uncovering the faulty testimonies, lack of evidence, and racial discrimination that suffocated the whole case; while simultaneously growing to understand Walter’s pains and triumphs. Even if the viewer is aware of the outcome in regards to the Walter McMillian case, one cannot be prepared for the beautiful story that is put on full display.
Without a doubt, one of the strongest qualities Just Mercy possesses is its outstanding cast. Across the board, Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Karan Kendrick, Rob Morgan, and Tim Blake Nelson along with everyone else, all show up and deliver fantastic performances. Each and every performer brings a presence to the screen pushing their raw emotions forward that will undoubtedly pull you in with every word. It should also be mentioned that not only do the performers pull off stellar work, but the lines of dialogue they speak aloud are also written incredibly well. Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham fantastically adapt Bryan Stevenson’s novel, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption in a manner that gives both Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan a shared amount of screen time fully allowing the audience to become captivated with each of their inspiring stories. I now wish to take some time to discuss who I believe delivers one of the most exceptional performances I have seen all year; that being Rob Morgan as Herbert Richardson. Mr. Richardson was a Vietnam War veteran that was honorably discharged in 1966. Upon his return home, he suffered from PTSD and several traumatic injuries that ultimately led him into the care of a nurse at the hospital he was stationed at.
Here, Mr. Richardson would build a relationship with this nurse until she decided to leave him for good. Upset as Mr. Richardson was, he wanted to win her heart back so he devised a plan to create a bomb that would injure the woman with the hopes that he could save her, thus reigniting that romantic relationship he had been yearning for. Unfortunately, the plan did not go as intended; instead of the woman picking up the bomb, a young girl by the name of Rena Mae recovered it and instantly died from the blast. After a racially discriminatory trial, Mr. Richardson was swiftly charged with capital murder and sentenced to death. Given the circumstances of the case, you are left with a sinking feeling that the country Mr. Richardson had fought for had now kicked him to the curb and neglected the deep internal struggles he had never fully coped with; instead of aiding him, they abandoned him. Morgan brings Mr. Richardson’s story to life in such a perfect fashion that you will not just see a killer, but instead, a complex and broken man that lost himself long ago. Morgan conveys a harrowing yet marvelous performance that will last with you well after the film’s credits roll.
No review of Just Mercy would ever be complete without mentioning the real hero behind it all, Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson is a Harvard graduate that began his work with the Southern Center for Human Rights for several years until the United States Congress suspended the funding for death penalty defense. In 1989, Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) to fill the void that was left vacant by the U.S. government. He began working closely with death row inmates to review their cases and aid in appealing them if foul play was suspected. As of today, Stevenson and his team have been committed to challenging racial injustices all throughout the United States and have currently helped in reversing or freeing more than 135 wrongfully accused peoples.
As his career has pressed forward, he has been acknowledged for his exceptional work by many public figures and organizations, while also traveling around the country leading lectures as a public speaker at universities and other events. With his valiant efforts at the EJI, he stands as a true advocate for the change he wants to see making him a true honorable modern-day figure. Bryan Stevenson delivered a riveting speech at Stanford University in 2016 where he discussed the racial inequalities within the criminal justice system of America. During his speech, he broached four key topics that I will use as a final note to you; if you wish to change the injustice happening within America you must be proximate, change the narrative, protect hope, and make yourself and those around you, uncomfortable. A challenge will lead to a change.
Just Mercy is an astonishingly important film because, despite the story taking place in the late 80’s and early 90’s, it feels like a news report we could be hearing today. The film asks audiences to reflect on the racist history of America and realize that slavery did not die in 1865, it merely evolved. Just Mercy will make you upset, laugh, cry, and smile until its bittersweet ending when you recognize that this kind of tale is a reality for hundreds of people in our country today. But, in the end, the film will leave you with an undeniable sense of hope that if we all come together, a change can come.