In June of 1987, Walter “Johnny D” McMillian was arrested by Sherriff Tom Tate of Monroeville, Alabama, for the murder of eighteen-year-old Ronda Morrison. The case had been unsolved for a year and Tate was keen to close it. Placed on death row before he was even sentenced, McMillian would remain there until March 1993. For the better part of six years, McMillian was held accountable for charges the evidence could not support. So why was he imprisoned? The answer is both easy and hard: the color of his skin. Adapted from the bestselling book Just Mercy, written by McMillian’s lawyer and the head of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) Bryan Stevenson, the film of the same name introduces McMillian’s case and Stevenson’s rising journey, following both during that six year period. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) and adapted by Andrew Lanham (The Glass Castle), Just Mercy is a painful yet hopeful tale of what justice should look like: equal in the face of all. The terrible truth is that the same personal angst that put McMillian behind bars remains just as present when the film hit theaters in 2019, as it did in 1987. For those, however, who remain optimistic, who understand that vigilance is a constant, the special features included in the home release may offer a pleasant jolt to the psyche with a reminder that you are not alone.
Just Mercy dramatizes the several years between McMillian’s arrest, Stevenson’s journey from law school intern to founder of the EJI, and the profound impact that working with McMillian and other death row inmates had on Stevenson. It’s a film that is packed with incredible talent (Oscar-winner Jamie Fox, Michael B. Jordan, Oscar-winner Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Rafe Spall) and whose message remains painfully timely. It truly makes no difference how you feel about the death penalty and you’d be remiss to think that that is the focus of the film. Lanham’s script focuses on the fact that some of the people facing a death sentence don’t actually deserve it, that the punishment may fit the crime, but not the context. This is why the film doesn’t just focus on McMillian, portrayed by Foxx, but on Herbert Richardson, portrayed by Morgan, and a bit on Anthony Hinton, portrayed by Jackson, Jr. The film would certainly be compelling as a law drama if it were to only track McMillian’s journey, except there’s a larger story of systemic prejudice against the Black community, the inequity of the justice system, and a failure to acknowledge context within the law. These are meaty topics that make Just Mercy a frequently hard watch, not because the actors do such an impressive job of conveying the real circumstances of these very real man or the fact that Cretton somehow makes this major studio project possess the spirit of an indie picture, but because where Just Mercy leaves its audience emotionally is very much relevant today.
The approach to Just Mercy shouldn’t surprise as Cretton made a name for himself with 2013’s critical darling Short Term 12, featuring a cast of mostly unknowns including Larson, LaKeith Stanfield, Rami Malek, Stephanie Beatriz, Kaitlyn Dever, and John Gallagher Jr. He’s a director who clearly knows how to work with his cast, pulling out the best from them, and making it clear where the audience should place their focus. Unlike how Clint Eastwood directed Richard Jewell, the other law drama released in 2019, Cretton didn’t approach the tale with a wide lens, instead favoring close-ups and mid-range shots for virtually every scene. Where Eastwood’s use of wider shots often conveyed the expansive pressure Richard Jewell faced under his scrutiny, Cretton’s tight direction imposes a feeling of intimacy between the audience and the characters. We see all the lines on the faces, the subtle glances, and kinesthetic responses. We, the audience, begin to feel the psychological pressure that is presented before us, as though the film extends itself beyond the screen, beckoning us to try to consider a point of view we may not have before, to consider a perspective kept hidden from our everyday lives, to remember that removing humanity from the justice system does not generate more justice, but sorrow and hopelessness.
One aspect of Just Mercy that deeply surprises is how the film doesn’t preach, but presents. With the exception of three speeches given by Jordan’s Stevenson within the context of courtroom, this reviewer fails to think of a moment when a characters prostrates another, thereby giving the audience a lecture. Instead, the combination of Lanham’s script, Cretton’s direction, and cast performances materializes into something less grand and more human, exploring the persistent nature of hateful people to ignore their prejudices and the resilience of a people to overcome accusations, slurs, violence, and more upon their bodies, yet fear losing their souls. Take the case of Hinton, a man arrested because the officer though he looked guilty in his mug shot. He would not get exonerated for 30 years. Or, tragically, Richardson, a military veteran who came home from Vietnam suffering from PTSD and, during an episode, killed someone with a bomb. Rather than sending him for psychological evaluation upon his return or after the incident, Richardson was left without treatment on death row. The film suggests that both men, while one was certainly guilty of murder, ended up where they did simply because of geography (the deep South) and the color of their skin. The key thing is that it suggests. It does not scream, it does not wail, it presents evidence after new evidence, and asks the audience if they, too, come to the same conclusion. If not, it hopes for them to ask themselves why. Certainly McMillian’s case is the most compelling as an obviously innocent man framed for murder. Yet, even within that aspect of the film, the story seems as fine with a negative outcome as a positive one, if only because, as presented by Foxx’s performance, the truth of the events finally comes out. The truth may not set the man free, but his soul will no longer be bound.
For those looking for more information on the film, be advised that the included special features are as unique as the film. Perhaps seeing the film as an opportunity to inform, there’s an eight-minute featurette headlined by Bryan Stevenson expanding on how the EJI began, what it is, and how it’s expanded. Considering it began as two people with federal funding unable to get someone to rent them office space, the fact that the EJI now includes The Legacy Museum, a place which seeks to acknowledge and remember the legacy of the Black community is extraordinary. Six-minute featurette “This Moment Deserves” focuses on both Stevenson and Jordan, each taking the time to talk about the film, the events that inspired the film, and what it was like for each of them in making Just Mercy. The least emotionally weighted of the featurettes is “Making Mercy,” a four-minute behind the scenes look at making the movie. What makes it so light is that rather than focusing exclusively on the principle cast and crew, “Making” also interviews interns, production accountant, grips, and more. If you didn’t get the indie vibe from the film, “Making” certainly seals the deal. From the single featurette, it becomes clear that filming Just Mercy wasn’t just about the stars, but about the story, one which connected with literally everyone involved.
It is, certainly, a bit of a curiosity that Just Mercy didn’t play as well with audiences. As of this writing, audience and critic scores on Rotten Tomatoes are high, suggesting that the film was received well, despite not making an impression during awards season. Then again, any film coming out in the year of Parasite, Once Upon a Time …in Hollywood, Jojo Rabbit, and The Irishman was likely to struggle. The shame of it is that as bittersweet a cinematic experience as Just Mercy is, there’s enough positive within it to motivate others to jump in. Perhaps it’ll see an extended life on home video, especially when so many are locked indoors looking for something to uplift.
Just Mercy Special Features
Just Mercy Blu-ray Special Features
- Making Mercy
- This Moment Deserves
- The Equal Justice Initiative
- Deleted Scenes
Just Mercy DVD Special Features
- Making Mercy
Available on digital March 24th, 2020.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD April 14th, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.