Film Review: Just Mercy
★ ★ ★ ★
Just Mercy is a film based on a poignant true story set in the late 1980s/ early 90s in the US state of Alabama. The film is centred around a young lawyer who …… endeavours to overcome the injustices of the legal system of the state. Michael B Jordan plays the role of Brian Stevenson, a Harvard law graduate with a zeal for seeking justice who sits the Alabama Bar exams and moves there to help those who lack adept legal representation and who have been unjustly incarcerated. He is aided in his fight by a young mother Eva Ansley (Brie Larson). Stevenson and Ansley set up a legal aid initiative to help those who can’t afford legal aid. Their clinic is in the town of Monroeville where Harper Lee wrote the famous novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” However the racist inclinations that characterise the world of Atticus Finch are still very much apparent in the backdrop of this movie.
One of Stevenson’s first cases is that of Walter McMillan, played by the formidable Jamie Foxx who has wrongfully been accused of the murder of an 18 year old girl and is now on death row. McMillan had received legal aid previously but his lawyers were completely inadequate and did nothing to help McMillan’s case. The prosecution’s case was completely fabricated and based on false witness testimonies. One of these witnesses was a convicted felon known as Ralph Myers. Myers, who had been burned severely as a child, was placed beside the chamber of the electric chair and was forced to smell the horrific scent of skin burning which was redolent of his own experience. He was informed that the only way he could escape the horrors of death row was if he made a completely false statement claiming to have been with McMillan on the day he allegedly committed the murder. Several of McMillan’s friends and family members had proof that McMillan was present with them at the time of the murder. However they could not convey this to the court due to the fact that the inequitable conditions governing the legal system forbid them to testify.
The movie also follows the stories of other men on death row who have been ill-treated by the authorities such as Herbert Richardson who is a PTSD sufferer from the Vietnam war. Scenes of Richardson’s harrowing execution by electric chair emphasise to the audience how horrific the last moments of a person’s life on death row can be. Dramatic camera close ups of the pain and torture inflicted on this man’s face are effective in evoking extreme discomfort from the viewer.
Stevenson is met with many obstacles in his fight for justice for Mr McMillan and is made to feel threatened by the inhabitants of the town. Stevenson also faces challenges from the legal system in his fight to prove McMillan’s innocence and it is difficult to foresee whether McMillan will ever be able to return to his family.
McMillan’s case took place in 1992 and this shows that racism and injustice are not a thing of the past. The corrupt system is showcased through passionate and emotive performances and highlights to us how quickly a person’s life can be taken away from them through no fault of their own.
Although the story of those on death row is a familiar one as told in films such as The Shawshank Redemption, Just Mercy is as fresh and as timely as ever. Experiences on death row scar a person for life. This is made evident by the fact that McMillan passed away due to early onset dementia which is claimed to have been linked to mental instability due to his time in prison. Injustice is still happening in our world today and this movie is a thought provoking and captivating description of the toll that racism can have on its victims and will leave viewers feeling outraged at the injustices they witness before them.
Áine Burke – Film & TV Writer