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Non-Review Review: Just Mercy

Just Mercy feels like a timely and relevant update to the classic death row prestige picture.

The bulk of Just Mercy unfolds over six years, between 1987 and 1993. This roughly overlaps with a cinematic interest in this subject matter in the late eighties and into the nineties. Mississippi Burning and A Time to Kill looked at the racially-charged dimension of criminal justice in the American South, released in 1988 and 1996 respectively. Dead Man Walking and The Chamber tackled anxieties around the death penalty in 1995 and 1996. Indeed, Just Mercy feels like something of a companion piece to these explorations of the American criminal justice system.

Courting public opinion.

These sorts of films have become increasingly rare in recent years, largely driven by changes in the market. The death of the mid-budget movie has had a major impact on these sorts of projects, with the most recent major examples being films like The Hurricane in 1999 and The Life of David Gale in 2003. These sorts of projects have largely migrated to television and arguably podcasts, developed as limited series like The Night Of or Now They See Us. As such, it’s rare to see a film like this receiving that sort of awards push.

However, what is truly interesting about Just Mercy is the way in which it doesn’t just revive the starry prestige criminal justice drama, it also modernises it. Just Mercy might be set against the backdrop of the late eighties and early nineties, but it feels undeniably current in how it approaches that familiar subject matter.

Conviction.

Just Mercy is based on the true story Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson was a Harvard-educated lawyer who was so moved by his internship with a death row legal aid organisation that he moved to Alabama in order to set up the Equal Justice Initiative. While working to help death row inmates in the state, Stevenson encountered Walter McMillian. McMillian (known as “Johnnie D” to his friends) had been convicted of murder and sentenced to death. However, pulling at the thread, Stevenson came to believe that McMillian might actually be innocent.

Just Mercy hits a lot of the expected beats and rhythms of this kind of story. In his efforts to defend his client, Stevenson brushes up against a system that is at best indifferent and at worst openly hostile to him. The facts are obscured by veiled threats and political manoeuvring. Stevenson and his co-workers finds themselves subject to harassment and attempted intimidation. Nevertheless, as Stevenson pulls at all the loose threads around the case, it begins to unravel.

Al(abama) good here.

To be fair, Just Mercy does suffer a little bit from the typical flaws of this kind of film. Just Mercy bristles with righteous anger, but occasionally feels a little too earnest and little too academic in its efforts to present the facts to the audience. The cast features a variety of strong and charismatic performers, with Michael B. Jordan playing Stevenson and Jamie Foxx playing McMillian, but there are points at which it struggles to define these figures as anything more than ciphers. Of course, all of this is completely understandable and even rational, but it does feel a little dry.

Just Mercy is at its strongest when it allows its emotions to bubble to the surface, when it allows Stevenson the luxury of being upset and frustrated and enraged at the way in which the system has stacked the deck against his clients. McMillian often feels like an abstract idea at the centre of a larger debate, but the film pops to life when it tries to capture his actual emotional response to what is happening to him. It’s a delicate balance in a film tackling subject matter like this, and Just Mercy just about manages to stay on the right side of it.

All clear(ing)…

Indeed, this conventional and familiar approach is arguably a core strength. It’s an interesting and ambitious approach from writers Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham. The duo understand exactly how a story like this is supposed to work, and follow the playbook perfectly. Many of the individual scenes in Just Mercy feel like they could have come from any similar drama; local Eva Ansley and her family receive a bomb threat over the phone for daring to help Stevenson, Stevenson is stopped by police officers on a remote country road, Stevenson witnesses his first execution.

However, Just Mercy is elevated by the way in which it filters this familiar genre framework through a slightly more modern perspective. More than a lot of the classic examples of death row cinema, Just Mercy is fascinated by the systemic issues with the criminal justice system. It is notable how many of the breakout “death row” films like Dead Man Walking or The Chamber are built around white inmates, despite the actual demographics of those on death row.

Not on the fence about it at all…

Just Mercy provides a social and historical context for these abuses of process, which other films in the genre have historically approached obliquely and in the abstract. Just Mercy avoids the familiar cliché of the Ku Klux Klan. Although characters like Stevenson and McMillian are the subject of racially-motivated violence, that violence is not attributed to an extra-legal organisation. While there is a telephoned bomb threat, most of the intimidation that Stevenson and McMillian experience comes from law enforcement officials acting in their official capacity.

Stevenson explicitly argues that McMillian’s case “is about all of us.” At a meeting about the case, one of McMillian’s friends cuts through the abstractions, arguing, “They can call it what they like, but it’s just another way to lynch a black man.” Indeed, in many of the cases that Stevenson investigates, it is suggested that the public defenders were just as complicit in the miscarriages of justice. Stevenson’s strongest foil during his appeals process is Tommy Champan, the new district attorney who worked for years as a public defender.

An appealing approach.

Repeatedly within Just Mercy, Stevenson wonders whether justice is even possible for a black man within Alabama. On his first visit to death row, Stevenson passes the black inmates working in the fields outside the prison, under the watchful eye of the white guards mounted on horseback. It is as though nothing has meaningfully changed in the one-hundred-and-twenty years since the end of the Civil War. The confederate flag is a constant presence, treated as something so common that it is barely worth remarking upon.

There is no small irony in that fact that the drama unfolds in Monroeville, the town which credits itself as “the home of To Kill Mockingbird.” This fact is mentioned in the news footage of McMillian’s trial. Stevenson is also repeatedly recommended the local museum, which is built on the old courthouse, as “one of the Civil Rights landmarks of the South.” Champan’s secretary remarks about the feeling of visiting the place “where Atticus Finch stood”, ignoring the fact that Atticus Finch was a fictional character.

It’s a Brie-ze.

Just Mercy argues that the story presented in To Kill a Mockingbird is a convenient fiction, a fantasy that disguises the reality of how the system operates. Stevenson points out that Monroeville’s actual history is that of a slave port, with entire generations of black people shipped in and sold on. However, rather than confront that reality, the community has opted to embrace a more romantic and entirely fictional past. It is that reluctance to acknowledge that history which feeds into the injustice visited upon McMillian with its own grim echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird.

All of this serves to distinguish Just Mercy from its obvious antecedents. Although it adopts the form and rhythms of those eighties and nineties dramas, it renders its critiques of the system much more overtly. It makes a more holistic argument against the sorts of structures of mass incarceration and the death penalty, insisting that these cases are neither isolated incidents nor an entirely abstract moral wrong. These injustices exist as an expression of a more fundamental problem, the manifestation of something much deeper.

You’re in, mate.

All of this affords Just Mercy a lot of emotional heft. It is a film that does not exist in isolation, and which doesn’t treat its problem as existing entirely independent of larger concerns. It feels like the expression of a slightly more expansive social conscience that a lot of similar films. In this way, Just Mercy updates an established narrative template for the twenty-first century.

One Response

  1. I’ll definitely see this if my theater gets it. I just want it to make up for The Glass Castle.

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