Thursday, February 6, 2020

Just Mercy

Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Tim Blake Nelson
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Running Time: 2 hours, 17 minutes
Rating: PG-13

The first time I heard of Bryan Stevenson (I'm embarrassed to say) was just back in 2017, when he spoke as part of Guilford College's Bryan Series. He spoke about his book Just Mercy, and the work he's done to exonerate wrongly accused death row prisoners. I was moved by his speech and got my hands on a copy of the book. In more than one instance, the book brought me to tears. So when I heard they were making a film based on Just Mercy and Bryan's work, I was thrilled to hear it. Again, more than once, the film brought me (and several people in the audience) to tears, and left me very troubled with startling stats at the end (you can read some of them here). I'm stunned the film hasn't gotten more critical acclaim, especially during the current awards season. While it was long in parts, I thought it was fantastic and a film everyone should see.

We meet Bryan, played by the always delightful and delicious Michael B. Jordan, as he's pursuing a law degree at Harvard. Much to his mother's chagrin, he turns down fancy job offers to work in Alabama, giving poor inmates on death row legal advice. His clients are all men, mostly African American. Some are guilty and admit it, and some insist they are innocent, just guilty from the moment they were born, because of their skin color. Jamie Foxx plays real-life former death row inmate Walter "Johnny D" McMillan. This performance might be my favorite of Foxx's to date. A jury convicted him of murder, based on the false testimony of a convicted white felon. Johnny D questions Bryan's ability to get any traction on his case, because the jury ignored the 20+ African Americans who testified that Johnny D was at a fish fry that day, and nowhere near the murder scene.

Brie Larson brings quiet strength to her role of Eva Ansley, the current Operations Director at Bryan's company Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). She is bound and determined to help Bryan's cause, even if it means getting threats from people in the community. Just when the team thinks they have a crack in the case, it gets shot down. The system seemed to be corrupt, and there was no way to change it. I admire their persistence and resilience to pursue justice at any cost. As Bryan said in the film, "it's never too late for justice."

There were several side stories regarding other prisoners, including the one who falsely testified against Johnny D. There were really beautiful moments and fantastic character work. I do think a few scenes could have been a bit tighter and shorter, but I would have watched these stories all day. The tears really flowed at the end, when we get to see real-life footage of wrongly accused death row inmates reunited with their family. EJI has become a powerhouse organization, overturning 140 wrongly accused sentences. Go see this movie. If you can hear Bryan Stevenson speak in person, do it. If you like to read, pick up a copy of Just Mercy. He will quickly become a hero of yours, as he has become for me.

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