Excitement and expectations were high and even tangible for “Just Mercy” as the audience sat in anticipation at the AMC Georgetown 14 theater. The film comes at a timely moment in entertainment media as attention to prison reform has grown, with projects like the documentary “13th” and mini-series “When They See Us” gaining critical acclaim. Based on a true story, “Just Mercy” depicts the effects of the corrupt justice system on the wrongly accused and their families.
“Just Mercy” stars Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard graduate and defense attorney from Delaware who attempts to get a murder conviction overturned for Walter McMillian, played by Jamie Foxx. Stevenson suddenly becomes involved in the McMillian case after McMillian is wrongly accused of killing a woman named Ronda Morrison. This true story highlights themes of comradery and family within the United States’ complex legal system and its issues, with racism at the forefront of the discussion.
The film, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, is based on “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” written by Bryan Stevenson. The title of the film fits perfectly with the story, as the police department of Monroeville, Ala., seems not to care about whether there is in fact evidence to support the prisoners’ crimes.
Stevenson tries his best to prove McMillian’s innocence amid obstacles thrown at him by Sheriff Tom Tate (Michael Harding) and his lawyer Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall). Despite these setbacks, Stevenson attempts to uncover the truth of the story with assistance from McMillian’s family, including his wife (Karan Kendrick) and son (C.J. LeBlanc). While justice is ultimately achieved for McMillian, viewers get the opportunity to see McMillian’s life in jail with his cell neighbors Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) and Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson Jr.).
“Just Mercy” successfully conveys themes of determination and perseverance with its optimistic perspective. The expert staging and set design bring attention to the hope and desperation that comes out of McMillian’s imprisonment. The natural colors and lighting are dynamic from scene to scene and emphasize the reality of the story being told by creating an atmosphere fitting for the tone and the plot. For example, the use of gloomy lighting during the scenes in jail symbolically represents the unfairness of McMillian’s imprisonment. Whenever Stevenson and McMillian are together, however, the lighting is brighter, symbolic of the hope that could come out of Stevenson trying his best.
The screenwriting is commendable for its thoughtful symbolism, especially its views of McMillian’s life before imprisonment as a pulpwood worker. A scene of McMillian looking up at the sky between the pulpwood trees before cutting them down symbolizes a glimpse of his freedom amid the tall trees of his imprisonment, which, though it a painful and seemingly defeatist experience, is actually a negotiable arrangement.
Though Cretton weaves a thoughtful tale, the story could have been taken further to give it a complete resolution true to the actual life of McMillian. A look at McMillian’s life in his later years and Stevenson’s legacy as they maintained contact successfully contributed to the sentimentality of the story, but this point could have been expanded upon in reenactments to truly complete the plotline. The film could have gone further to encourage viewers to sympathize with Stevenson by portraying his later accomplishments in pursuit of justice, like his development of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in 2018.
While many true stories have been adapted into movies, “Just Mercy” stands out as a film with themes particularly relevant to 2020. This film is as touching as it is compelling with its struggling protagonists and spotlight on the flawed judicial system. It brings critical awareness to some of the greatest issues currently in need of fixing in this country.