Bear witness to Just Mercy and you’ll soon recognize a story so much more than justice denied to a black man on death row: It’s revelatory of a cancer of America itself. African Americans. Hispanic Americans. Asian Americans. Native Americans. What they, and we, share is a common suffix of identity: Americans. Even the film’s title, “Just Mercy,” affirms the moral of its story. Yes, our eyes readily dart to the emotional resonance of the word “mercy” in the title, but consider for a moment the title’s other word, “just,” from the Latin iustus. And if I recall my college etymology, “iustus” is to say “righteous, equitable, lawful” or even “perfect.” Indeed, you may not find a more “perfect” experience at the cinema this season; and given that it features two bonafide Oscar winners (Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson) and showcases the best performance, to date, from Michael B. Jordan, the most exciting young actor on the planet, you may find that, like me, it’s worth seeing Just Mercy twice—once for self-validation, and again with someone you care deeply for.
“If we look at ourselves closely and honestly, I believe we will see that we all need justice,” says Bryan Stevenson (Jordan) near the film’s conclusion. “We all need justice, we all need mercy, and we all need some measure of unmerited grace.”
I couldn’t scribble those words into my notebook fast enough when I was privileged to have attended Just Mercy’s world premiere at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival. I’ve re-read those words dozens of times since, and they resonate more powerfully with each reading. In a time when our nation is at a dangerous crossroads of treating fewer and fewer people with the mercy once promised to be self-evident, I have come to recognize that it is all too easy to tire from an onslaught of justice denied. No, my friend. You shall not tire. We shall not tire. The quest is long. Just Mercy is a signpost that reminds us there are miles to go, but there is greatness, and perhaps perfection, at highway’s end.
Just Mercy is based on the true story of attorney Bryan Stevenson and a history-making battle for justice. After graduating from Harvard, Stevenson had his pick of lucrative jobs. Instead, he headed for Alabama to defend the wrongly condemned or improperly represented.
“You don’t know what you’re into down here in Alabama, where you’re guilty from the moment you’re born,” Stevenson is told from client Walter McMillan (Foxx), who was sentenced to die for the notorious murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite a preponderance of evidence proving his innocence.
The morning after Just Mercy’s premiere at TIFF, Jordan, who is also one of the film’s producers, told me, “I’m so proud of what we’ve done here. You get to know Walter and see the humanity of an innocent man wrongly convicted, but you also see Bryan’s courage and passion, and understand why he dedicated his life to this cause through the Equal Justice Initiative.”
Like many of you, I first became aware of Bryan Stevenson, Walter McMillan and the EJI in 1992, in a compelling report by the late, great CBS journalist Ed Bradley for 60 Minutes. The EJI had a very modest naissance, but has grown exponentially in the decades since.
“The EJI is the voice of people who can’t speak for themselves,” Jordan told me at TIFF. “They stand up for those who are told to sit down; and they won’t quit until every option is exhausted or until justice is served. To achieve justice is Bryan’s only motivation.
Larson (perhaps I should say the Marvelous Ms. Marvel?) is already one of the most in-demand actresses in Hollywood, and she’s a welcome addition to Just Mercy in the small but pivotal supporting role as Eva Ansley.
“Eva doesn’t have a law degree but she’s working from the heart,” said Larson following the film’s premiere. “She was mortified by what was happening in her community and took it upon herself to start cold-calling lawyers. She ends up working with Bryan and helped him start what would become the EJI.”
Ultimately, Just Mercy reminds us that there is no “justice for all” as we once pledged to the flag as children. For certain there is justice for some, but there is also extreme injustice for many others. Indeed, our lives are not unlike trials, reminders of ugliness of what humans are capable of doing to each other. But occasionally, mercy emerges. And when that mercy is “just”, it is a near-perfection of the human condition.