To Kill a Mockingbird Museum in Montgomery (Alabama) is popular among Just Mercy’s Montgomery residents. There’s been a Civil Rights Movement in Alabama for decades, and it’s the late 1980s. A white guard pulls a strip search of African American Harvard-educated attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) while he visits his clients on death row, and the irony is not lost on him. Although civil rights have been granted, racial prejudices are still a part of daily life in the United States.
There’s something deeply thoughtful and profound about Just Mercy when it comes to compassion and cruelty. Humanity is capable of both extremes, as this event shows. An inmate on death row was assigned to review charges against death row inmates by a Harvard educated lawyer in 1989. His clients are mostly black. But the whole system is white, including law enforcement, prosecution and courts. This has to do with the fact that there is little hope that such a system will be just and merciful. A prisoner, Walter McMillian, said that all human beings are guilty from the moment they are born.
A somber stillness pervades the film, directed and written by Destin Daniel Cretton. It has a measured pace as well as an overall sense of compassion. I had to watch the movie for at least 15 or 20 minutes before I felt fully immersed. This movie has a slow buildup of power. When the layers of Cretton’s work are built up slowly, you suddenly find yourself in tears. Witnessing blatant racism is disturbing. There isn’t even any pretense of the system being fair among those who uphold the law. The justice system continually ignores black men.
A logger, McKenna, is accused of murder and is played by Jamie Foxx, who gives a strong performance as Stevenson. Bryan’s frustration and tenacity are depicted skillfully by Jordan, who plays down his natural charisma. The film opens with Stevenson being strip searched as he enters the correctional facility. A white cop’s whim is the only reason why he is subjected to this humiliation – he has no justification to be treated in this manner. While Foxx endures death and discrimination, he remains stoic. He is made noble by his suffering. The situation is even more heartbreaking because he keeps his dignity intact. Your heart breaks for McMillian when he finally fails. There is less depth in Brie Larson’s character than Stevenson’s, which is why I find her cast unjustified.
A mentally ill prisoner named Herb is executed at the center of Just Mercy. It’s impossible to turn our gaze away from Cretton’s portrayal of killing. He is horrified by the sound made when electric shocks kill him, his request for a certain song and his fear of his fate. Sequences such as this one gracefully slam the legal system.
McMillian contemplates the sky as he cuts trees just before he is arrested. While he waits for execution, he turns to that patch of blue as solace. Throughout the film, Cretton returns to this idea, making it an affecting reminder of all the luxuries we take for granted every day. There aren’t many stylistic flourishes in Just Mercy. Racial tensions are universal. The narrative is given urgency and timeliness by Cretton and his leads. Bigotry and bias are fueling injustices across the globe, including ours.
In his leading role, Daniel Cretton avoids emotional histrionics in order to achieve the documentary feel. This is not a movie about a man on death row, but there is no sense of urgency in the opening half of the film. Over two hours of the movie’s runtime are spent at leisurely pace. Following a pivotal revelation, the film takes a noticeable turn, and the climax seems more purposeful.
I would like to give the movie 4/5 stars for the scenes which offer startling reminders of the harsh reality of prison life, racial discrimination, as well as raise questions about capital punishment. Most importantly, the film demonstrates that the privileged and rich can manipulate the legal system all over the world. However, ‘Just Mercy’ takes its time getting to its conclusion, but it leaves an indelible impression at the end.