Did you see the super cringe “I Take Responsibility” video that the NACCP made starring several Hollywood actors. It was well-meaning, yes, but another kind of mis-judged entry to the “we’re all in this together” folder. The video is just tone-deaf and completely misunderstands what people need to hear right now. This is a time when a lot of people are angry and they don’t need a bunch of actors showcasing their white guilt for all to see. God knows, Hollywood has an awful lot to do to make up for their lack of representation for Black actors. It’s going to take more than just Stanley Tucci and Julianne Moore getting all actory in a black and white video. Thankfully, to counter this, several films have been made free to stream in the US. One of them is this 2019 film that lays bare the prejudice that exists at the heart of American law enforcement. It only felt right to watch it for my review this week.
Just Mercy is based on the real-life story of civil rights defence attorney Bryan Stevenson and the work he did with death-row inmates. As an intern, Bryan comes face-to-face with a young man on death row and realises that these people need someone to speak up for them. After he graduates from Harvard Law, Bryan moves to Alabama and starts the Equal Justice Initiative. This is how he first learns about Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian. Johnny D was convicted of the murder of a young white girl and given the death sentence. Looking at his case, Bryan can clearly see that the investigation was botched and the police did everything that they could to get a convinction. Despite the fact that everything pointed to the fact that Johnny D was innocent. With the whole town against him, Bryan and his small team decide to fight to get Johnny D released from prison before its too late.
The great thing about Just Mercy is that, for the most part, it does its job in a wonderfully understated way. It avoids relying on heavy grandstanding and relies on focusing on the story at hand. You get up close and personal with the story of one-man that puts the atrocities of the legal system in context. Bryan Stevenson is a warm-hearted young man who just wants to help the misfortunate. He moves down to Alabama thinking that he understands what life is like for Black people. It’s not long before he comes face-to-face with the racism that is causing so much pain and trouble. Bryan is putting people’s noses out of joint, particularly the police, and they aren’t afraid to let him know it. We see people in positions of power try and humiliate him and knock him down.
This is certainly a very relevant topic for the last few weeks and it deals with it in a very measured way. It is a story of hope, yes, but it highlights the themes of poverty, prejudice and institutional racism. The members of the Black community are the scapegoats for when the police need a quick arrest. With some police officers willing to force testimony and cover up evidence to make it happen. Of course, the people they are locking up are helping to promote an image of a volatile community, so they can justify their actions as keeping the town, or the white people, safe. The film is set in 1989, the year after I was born. It would be nice to be able to look back on this time and be able to say that we’ve all moved on. But, as the last few weeks have highlighted more than ever, the relationship between law enforcement and Black citizens has not changed.
It’s really no wonder than Just Mercy wasn’t recognised by the Academy. It certainly deserved to be. Both men at the heart of the film, Jamie Foxx and Michael B Jordan, give phenomenal performances. Foxx in particular gives one of his best ever performances. Yet, the message isn’t in keeping with the racism narrative that the Academy likes. Basically, it’s no Green Book. There is no real “and that’s how racism was solved” moment. It speaks to the past but it also speaks for the present. There are no major motivational speeches. No swelling monlogues where Michael B Jordan’s Stevenson changes the world. It’s just a very matter-of-fact representation of one man’s struggle to help the downtrodden. This isn’t the story of a hero but of a man giving hope to the hopeless. Even if he can’t always succeed, Bryan Stevenson showed these men that not everybody had given up on them. And it will inspire you to not give up on them either.
If ever there was a film that you needed to watch right now, it’s this one. Just Mercy is a fairly quiet and the supporting cast are only really there to keep the story going. Even an actor as high profile as Brie Larson is willing to take a step back and do as little as possible. Just Mercy is here to highlight the story at hand and the ongoing struggle in America. It’s not perfect and, if I had to find one criticism, it’s that the storytelling could be a bit tighter. You get the sense that maybe the runtime could have been a tad shorter but, really, it doesn’t dilute the message all that much. It’s a powerful, emotional, and important story.