I first learned about Bryan Stevenson after listening to an interview he did on the Ezra Klein podcast. He talked about his background, connected the nation’s historical trauma to current disparities in the criminal justice system, and gave profound thoughts on how “the opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice” inspired me.
After listening to the podcast, I bought his memoir “Just Mercy” detailing his life story, his work with the Equal Justice Initiative, and all the associated challenges, heartbreaks and triumphs representing the poor and dispossessed. Stevenson’s life and work are the quintessence of grace and all I could say after finishing the book was “this man is doing the Lord’s work.”
Having read the book, I watched the film this week and was certainly not disappointed.
Just Mercy follows a young Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan), a Harvard-educated lawyer who moved to Alabama to defend those wrongly condemned or who were not afforded proper representation.
The film (which also includes Brie Larson of Captain Marvel as his legal assistant) shows the trials and tribulations of one of his first big cases: the wrongful conviction and death sentence of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), charged for the murder of an 18-year old girl. As the film’s Warner Bros. page describes, Stevenson “becomes embroiled in a labyrinth of legal and political maneuverings and overt and unabashed racism as he fights for Walter, and others like him, with the odds — and the system — stacked against them.”
Hopefully, without giving too many spoilers (there are spoilers beyond this point), I thought the film really captured inequality and anti-blackness in the criminal justice system. Though the U.S is only 5% of the world’s population, it has 25% of the world’s prison population (if America’s prison population was a city, it would be the size of Houston) and the disproportionate amount of black people in jail is a direct vestige of slavery and Jim Crow.
Jordan did a great job portraying the range of intense emotions—pain, empathy fatigue, repressed rage, demoralization, jubilation—that Stevenson must have felt trying to prove McMillian’s innocence: the indignity of strip searches, having people whose job is to bring justice wantonly play with a man’s life, blocking the defendant’s family from entering a public courtroom. But the vindication he, McMillian and his family get when the charges are dismissed in the end is the sweet fruit of perseverance.
And though it’s difficult to imagine what it would feel like being on death row for a crime you not only didn’t commit but wasn’t in the vicinity of, Foxx did a solid job with his character as well.
NYPost writer Sara Stewart nailed it in her review of the film when she wrote “Both characters understand the inherent danger in being visibly angry black men, and (mostly) mute their reactions accordingly” and that the film was “profoundly moving and, at times, almost unbearably sad.”
The film gets at the deep paradox of the justice system—the tenuous balance between justice, mercy and revenge, all buffered by a legal system that can be as deliberately fair as it is arbitrarily cruel, especially to poor black people. Just Mercy shows how precarious justice can actually be. When it really comes down to it, it isn’t “the law” that maintains order and provides justice, it is the people. The film understands the justice is often a matter of the heart and soul, not prodigious philosophy and cold logic.
I definitely suggest watching the film and reading the book. It really gives you a new perspective on the herculean amount of physical, mental and spiritual work people like Stevenson and those who work at the EJI do in representing those society has cast away—all the while trying to maintain their own dignity and prevent hate from corrupting them as well.
Previously published on Medium.com.
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