Biweekly Binge- Just Mercy: Death row and unmerited grace
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's Just Mercy
Destin Daniel Cretton's Just Mercy - streaming on Amazon Prime - is set in and around Monroeville, Alabama. The town of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird. When lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B Jordan), newly minted from Harvard, arrives in Monroeville to begin his Equal Justice Initiative, an organisation fighting pro bono for black convicts on death row who have been victims of racial profiling, injustice and unfair trial practices, everyone points him towards the museums and tributes of Lee's seminal, Pulitzer-winning classic. Jordan gives his best poker face to everyone who suggests that idea to him. He is here to consider prisoners on death row and find out if they've been convicted after a fair trial, and if not, give them one.
The prison inmates including Walter "Johnny D" McMillan (Jamie Foxx) have lost all hope of the Deep South ever transforming into something close to a hospitable environment for the black community. He shuts down Stevenson during the first visit. "Harvard? That's white boy status bro" is a refrain Stevenson gets a lot, and everybody, including his parents, is either confused or worried about his decision to take up this fight fresh out of school. Stevenson knows that there are no white saviours in this town — this is the late 80s and early 90s — and Stevenson, a black man from Delaware, is the Atticus Finch of Just Mercy, putting his expensive education to good use coming from a similar community and economic background.
The parallels to To Kill a Mockingbird hit us like a rock. The sheriff who made the arrest is another Tate. Johnny D has been sentenced to death for killing a young white woman, her pretty picture is flashed all over the town and media. There may not be a coloured balcony anymore in the courtroom but the sheriff and the prosecutors delay Johnny D's family and friends from entering the public hearing till the seats are already taken. Tim Blake Nelson plays Ralph Myers who gave the false testimony that helped convict Johnny D. Later, Stevenson finds out alarming details about Myers, who grew up in foster homes, and his testimony. Myers becomes a sort of Boo Radley figure. And none of this is embellished. The film is based on true stories. It's a biographical film focused on Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer and social justice activist who has dedicated his life to the Equal Justice Initiative.
Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) is the only one who has been at this with the locals for long and she becomes a trusted ally, offering Stevenson her couch and later setting up an office for him. Cretton introduces Stevenson with a closeup of his face as he walks into a room to meet an inmate to inform him that his execution date is at least a year away. The reaction throws Stevenson – in his internship – off and leaves something of a mark in the way he thinks about his origins, education, and career. Cretton heightens the drama with handheld medium length takes following a character, more often than not Stevenson. One of them works beautifully when a beleaguered Stevenson walks into Sheriff Tate's office to confront him about arresting the young man who's given a witness statement to pass a motion for Johnny D's retrial. A hot-headed Stevenson walks in as the camera follows him from the road to him bursting open the doors, barging into Tate's office where he is surprised to see the District Attorney. Tate and the attorney dismiss him outright. And then, the totally expected turn of events occurs. Stevenson is stopped on the road by a patrolling vehicle and searched at gunpoint by two policemen who don't give a reason for pulling him over.
On the other side of the wall, Cretton has three black prisoners on death row holed up in three cells next to each other. Their communication is warm and friendly, they talk about the wild goose chase Stevenson is in, his good intentions, and they take turns to play their own therapists. While Johnny D can understand what happened to him, Vietnam veteran Herbert is suffering from PTSD and feels whatever he is in for is fully deserved. They essentially compare Vietnam with institutional racism in America and conclude that at least in Vietnam, they had a chance. The unspoken words ring in our ears, 'to defend themselves'.
The film, in flashes, works like a David Simon screenplay, where the problems with the system are structural and manifold, they cannot be brought down or altered by one determined Bryan Stevenson in a single swoop. They take time, appeals after appeals, one court to a higher court and death row inmates can rarely afford that time. As Johnny D puts it, "in Alabama, you are guilty from the day you were born." Just Mercy is still a film, it plays fast and cool with the time period taking us a little longer to realise just how long this case has taken out of Stevenson's life. In the end, the film informs us that one of Johnny D's prison neighbours was wrongly convicted of a murder and held as a death row inmate for 28 years before being released in 2015.
The cast adds to Cretton's efforts to whip up the drama. Both Foxx and Jordan can hold the close-ups and they operate in contrasting tones. Foxx with his high stakes dialogues delivered with a dollop of passion, experience, and world weariness, while Jordan, as a greenhorn lawyer, keeps his emotions in check and tries to be as dispassionate as possible even as he learns that not considering your clients as family is the worst lawyerly advice anyone has given. While the fight is long and hard, Just Mercy is tale of a few good men and women it takes to realise that everyone deserves, as Stevenson puts it, "unmerited grace."