"just Mercy" Movie Review

by Mira Henry ‘24

*Spoiler Warning*

Just Mercy is the true story of Bryan Stevenson, a young Harvard graduate from the north (Micheal B. Jordan) fighting for death row inmates who do not have proper legal representation. The story begins in 1987 when Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) is accused and arrested for murdering a teenage white girl, based on lies, corruption, and blackmail stemming from the local Monroeville police system. It is not until two years later that Bryan Stevenson moves to Monroeville, Alabama, and teams up with Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) to start fighting for the death row inmates. We are shown Bryan meeting with many different inmates, but there are only two the movie focuses on.

 

 He meets with Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), a black Vietnam war vet who was the only member of his entire platoon to survive. He was later honorably discharged from the army due to serious cases of PTSD. Upon returning home he was still in a mentally unfit state and ended up building a bomb and placing it on a front porch which ended up killing an 11-year-old girl and injuring her friend. When the time came for his trial, his lawyer never even mentioned the fact that he was not mentally stable. Herbert then received the death penalty as punishment for his actions. While at the death row facility, he becomes close friends with Walter McMillian and Anthony Ray Hinton and gets the nickname Herb. When Bryan came around Herbert had been on death row for over 10 years. Bryan works hard to get him a retrial and use Herbert's PTSD as his leading piece of evidence to get him freed. Unfortunately, Bryan has no success with the court and is unable to save Herbert. He ends up getting sentenced to death in 1989 by the electric chair. 

 

Herbert's death is one of the most memorable moments in the movie. Just before the scene begins Herbert has his final conversation Bryan. During the conversation Herbert tells Bryan about how grateful he is for trying to help him and that he was that cared enough to fight for him. Herbert also asks if it would be okay if Bryan received his flag from the army because he has no family left. To which Bryan says “I would be honored.” The two share a final prayer together and the song “The Old Rugged Cross” performed by Ella Fitzgerald begins to play through the facility over the loudspeaker, a song of Herbert’s choosing. He is walked through the halls and led into the room with the electric chair where he is strapped in and read his sentence by prison guards in the room. He says his final words “I have no ill feeling and I hold nothing against anyone.” The fellow inmates show their support by banging their cups against the steel prison doors and shouting out their final respects to him. Bryan can be seen from the viewing gallery with the look of fear and horror in his eyes. With that the song comes to a conclusion and Herbert is shocked by the chair. In my opinion this is the most emotional and moving scene in the whole movie. It gives great detail and background to inmates' last moments. His death is what pushed Bryan into the direction he needed to save Walter McMillian or as called by his friends Jonny D. 

 

The main fight of the story is Bryan’s fight to get the innocent Walter McMillian freed. Unlike other lawyers Bryan wanted to become close with Walters family and community so he drove out to meet them and get their side of the story. Through meeting them he found an overwhelming amount of evidence to the fact that Walter is innocent. The state charged McMillan with kidnapping a white man named Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson) and forced him to drive to Jackson’s Cleaners where he tells Ralph to wait. When Walter goes inside Ralph drives away to buy a pack of cigarettes and when he comes back 18 year old Rohanda Morrison is dead. This lie is what was told at Walters trial and most of the witnesses were threatened into lying on the witness stand. Bryan uncovers tons of evidence proving that Walter is innocent and the base of his first trial was built on lies, so he meets with as many people as he can hoping some of them will tell the truth about what happened. He ends up getting Ralph to admit to his false statement from the previous trial and he gets a former police officer who was forced to leave the force because he wanted to speak out about how Rohnada’s body was found in a different place than the police reports stated. Bryan and Walter fought for 6 years going through many different appeals and even the Alabama Supreme Court before he finally was exonerated. The only reason he was exonerated was because District Attorney Thomas Chapman,who had been fighting against Steveson and McMillan for years joined the defence hoping to see the charges dropped. On March 2,1993 Walter D. McMillan was released from Holman State Prison as a free man. 

 

This movie showed the racism black Americans faced in America in the late 20th century and gives insight into what one had to go through to get freed from death row and wrongful conviction. This movie also brings Bryan Stevenson the attention he deserves, since freeing Walter McMillian he and the Equal Justice Initiative have overturned 125 wrongful conditions saving men from the bias in the criminal justice system.  The Equal Justice Initiative still exists today and continues to provide aid to people lacking legal representation. Bryan’s work has changed the lives of so many people; for example in 2015 he freed Anthony Ray Hinton who was on death row for over 30 years due to the false claim that he murdered two people. 

 

Just Mercy first premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 6, 2019 and released in theaters on December 25, 2019 as a biographical legal drama. The direction by Destin Daniel Cretton was excellent, he truly captured the details and struggle of the time period, showing people what it was like to be a black american in Alabama in the late 20th century. The entire cast did an excellent job portraying the characters. Micheal B. Jordan gave a strong performance of Bryan Stevenson and showed us how strong he is in real life. Jamie Foxx portrayed the struggles Walter McMillian faced excellently. Overall I really liked this movie and recommend you watch this movie in order to understand the work lawyers are putting into helping change the legal system.