‘Just Mercy’: The Death Penalty and Justice on Trial @ AFI Fest☆☆☆☆☆

There are movies that bring tears of thankfulness to our eyes, tears of happiness and yet make us think about the very nature of justice in the United States. “Just Mercy” is one of those movies.

There are days when you might think like Shakespeare, that we need to kill of the lawyers (“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” Henry VI, Part 2, Act IV, Scene 2), but this movie says otherwise. If you want to speak derisively about so-called “social justice warriors,” then you better hope that you can always afford to have the best representation and the best lawyers. For some people, like Walter McMillian, needed a warrior who believed in him and, in his case, it was Bryan Stevenson, a young Harvard-trained lawyer, played here with great conviction and restraint by Michael B. Jordan.

Walter “Johnny D” McMillian, played by a subdued Jamie Foxx, is a pulpwood worker in Monroeville, Alabama. He was convicted of the murder of 18-year-old Ronda Morrison. Morrison had been shot while working at a dry cleaners on 1 November 1986. McMillian had been arrested in 1987, but he had been at a fish fry on the date of the murder. Yet the court case overlooked that and he was convicted of murder on the basis of a white man’s testimony.  That white man, Ralph Bernard Myers (Tim Black Nelson), pleaded guilty of conspiracy and received life. The jury in the predominately white Baldwin County (86 percent) also asked for life but the judge, Robert E. Lee Key Jr. (Stephen Wyatt Nelson),  overruled their decision and sentenced McMillian to death. The trial had been moved from Monroe County which was 40 percent white due to publicity.

Stevenson was only 28 when he took on this case in November of 1988. McMillian (October 27, 1941 – September 11, 2013) was 47. At death row, Stevenson meets other inmates, including Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) who does not get a stay of execution. Richardson, concerned about being alone, asks Stevenson to stay with him. The experience changes Stevenson as it does all who witness the death by electrocution (which is only suggested and not shown).

In 1992, the case received the added publicity generated by CBS News’ “60 Minutes.” Yet on our way there, Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham’s screenplay show how Stevenson and key staff members like the white Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) were threatened and harassed and how they became emotionally connected to the underserved black community. As director, Cretton resists veering into anointing Stevenson with sainthood and ends with Stevenson reminding us that “We need conviction in our hearts” and “hopelessness is the enemy of justice.” Of course, we learn what happened to McMillian and others involved and see the real life counterparts. That’s to be expected, but I don’t find this maudlin. I wanted to see the real people, the faces of the real heroes.

What’s sad is that the victim, Ronda Morrison, and her family didn’t receive justice, but an easy scapegoat isn’t justice either.

The film is based on a memoir  “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Stevenson, now 60. Stevenson is the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative and a clinical professor at the New York University School of Law. He was born and raised in Delaware, but his activities for the EJI were based in Alabama. He’s received many awards:

“Just Mercy” made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (6 September 2019), screened at AFI Fest (16 November 2019)  and will be released on 25 December 2019) by Warner Bros.


Equal Justice Initiative

Walter Macmillian

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