The biggest question I had coming out of Destin Daniel Cretton’s handsomely crafted adaptation of Bryan Stevenson’s memoir Just Mercy is whether or not people are willing to hear its message. If, like me, you already recognize and agree with its argument that our justice system is broken and has racial prejudices built into it, then you simply sit there and nod. But maybe it’s not for me. Maybe it’s for the people who thought Green Book was brilliant because an ordinary white guy learned to respect an extraordinary black guy. I don’t know if Just Mercy will break through to those who fail to see larger racial injustice in America, but Cretton and his terrific cast and crew take their best shot to challenge their audience without making them too uncomfortable.
In 1987 in Monroe County, Alabama, Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx) is arrested and convicted for the murder of a young white woman. A couple years later, freshly minted attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) comes down to Alabama to help provide legal assistance to inmates on death row including Johnny D. Bryan quickly sees that the case against Johnny D is weak and flimsy, and that his battle isn’t against a mountain of evidence but the entrenched racism of the legal system and the white Alabama community. Bryan battles to get Johnny D free, but is confronted by racism, threats, and a system that rests on keeping black men like Johnny D locked up for their labor or their lives.
I fully recognize that a lot of people don’t seek out entertainment that’s a bummer. It’s very easy for me to recommend a great miniseries like When They See Us, but I understand that a lot of viewers, however well-meaning, don’t want to go through an emotional ringer that also functions as a damning indictment of the American justice system. Just Mercy is a friendly compromise. It tells its audience that they’ll get a well-made, terrifically acted drama that has the structure of a procedural and in exchange they’ll maybe reconsider their preconceived notions about the justice system and systemic racial injustice.
For some, this compromise is no good. If you already agree with its argument, then this is just Cretton preaching to the choir. I lean more towards that camp. I believe that we cannot change unless we are challenged, and we cannot be challenged without conflict. Some degree of hardship is necessary to impart a message, and so I require a gut punch that Just Mercy consciously avoids in favor of uplifting themes like hope and dignity. It’s by no means a “light” movie; they show the gruesomeness of an execution and how a system of “justice” rests on something that’s not only inhumane, but also used to threaten inmates to give false testimony, thus further perpetuating injustice. And yet it also works to be palatable and avoids condemning its audience. It’s an activist sales pitch, but I was sold on its argument before I walked into the theater.
For others, the world of Just Mercy is liberal rubbish. If you spit out terms like “social justice warrior” or dismissively employ “woke” as an insult, then you’re likely not interested in the world Just Mercy presents. You probably believe all criminals are guilty. The system works and if you’re upset that it’s working against the black community, then that’s just your white guilt. And what about justice for the victim? What about her family? What of them? What about all the death row inmates who are guilty? Isn’t it better that perhaps the occasional innocent man (who was probably no angel!) suffer rather than one guilty man go free?
I doubt this group will bother even showing up for Just Mercy. My hope is that this movie will reach Green Book fans. Since the film is in an activist mold and clearly stakes out its stance (which I prefer to some wishy-washy “can’t we all get along” bromide), I hope it can convince audiences to widen their gaze. Cretton certainly does everything in his power to make the film as engaging as possible. It’s beautifully shot, has a great score, and Jordan and Foxx are Oscar-worthy. You may not get to know Stevenson as a three-dimensional person with shortcomings and foibles, but in Jordan’s eyes you can see how much Bryan cares about this fight and his passion for justice. He cares, so we care. That’s what a magnetic and talented actor does.
It’s difficult to judge a film based on a hypothetical audience, but the strength of the narrative hinges on the strength of its message. The question I keep puzzling over is whether anyone is willing to hear that message in an increasingly polarized age. I don’t have an answer for that. I know that Just Mercy is on the right side of history. I know that no single film can upend an entire system predicated on racial injustice. And I know just because I agree with a film’s politics that doesn’t mean the film is good (for example, I think Michael Moore’s documentaries are garbage even though I agree with him politically). But Just Mercy is a well-intentioned and, more importantly, well-made film that will hopefully connect to those who are willing to entertain its argument that justice isn’t just how we treat the people we know, but how we fix a broken system so that it provides justice to everyone.