"Just Mercy" is one of those historical films that revisit the crushing heartache of a tragic story anchored in Southern racism. Its harrowing storyline begins in 1987 in Montgomery, Alabama, where Walter McMillian (played by Jamie Foxx), a black logger, was put on death row for a murder he did not commit. Consider for a moment that this was 1987, not 1957. Just over two decades had passed since the civil rights movement when McMillian was facing the horror of the electric chair. The appalling events chronicled in this film took place during my senior year in high school. Like many teenagers in the '80s, I was fairly naive about the world around me, and growing up in the first post-civil rights generation had me thinking that racism certainly was not as bad as it used to be. Being from Georgia, a state that cuddles Alabama, I knew that bigoted mindsets didn't pass away in 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. However, I knew very little about the criminal justice system and had no idea about the agony of McMillian and his family. The distressful suffering of McMillian and other black men who lost the prime of their lives for being wrongly accused were stories that had been suppressed. It would take the undaunted courage of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a young black Harvard lawyer, to bring them to the forefront, along with a resolute pursuit of the truth.
Truth in McMillian's case had been malevolently distorted through the lens of racial profiling. Many of his fellow death row inmates were bound by the same fate. In a scene with Anthony Ray Hinton (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), who was accused of killing two fast-food restaurant workers in Birmingham, Hinton recalls with anguish the heartless words the police officer said to him: "One of you n——— did it. If not you, then you takin' one for your homie." McMillian was accused of killing a white woman, an allegation that would have expedited the ghastly death sentence of lynching for a Southern black man during the Jim Crow era. McMillian didn't face the viciousness of a lynch mob, but being a victim of coerced testimony by Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), a white man with a noted criminal record, was its illegal equivalent. "Just Mercy" powerfully depicts the depth of emotional despair that McMillian endures from the lies used to build the state's case against him. He does, however, feel liberated when Myers recants his testimony, a breakthrough that eventually helps Stevenson get the charges against McMillian dropped.
One of Stevenson's quotes at the end of the film when he was testifying before Congress during the early '90s perfectly summarizes how we should think regarding fairness and reform in the criminal justice system: "We all need some measure of unmerited grace. We all need mercy." I sat in the theater and pondered this moving testimonial, reflecting on how God extends unmerited grace and mercy even in the most demoralizing circumstances. Although Stevenson was not able to save all of his clients from the death penalty when first relocating to Montgomery, he laid the foundation for a career that has spanned over three decades helping poor and innocent people through his Equal Justice Initiative. I'm sure many prayers went up in Montgomery for God's covering of Stevenson and his colleague Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), a white woman who risked her life and her family's safety to help death row inmates, most of them black. Perhaps the most touching scene of unwavering faith in God's mercy was the real footage of Hinton's release in 2015. Walking out of prison, he collapsed into the arms of one of his female relatives, who cried: "Thank you Lord! Thank you Jesus!" I was in tears at this point. While I will never know the pain and grief of Hinton's family, I do know that only God can heal the angst of Hinton's serving 30 years behind bars and tirelessly working to prove his innocence. Another poignant statement that Stevenson made before Congress is that we can't change the world with just ideas. This is true. But if we show mercy and compassion through the love of God, we will always have the upper hand against the stronghold of injustice.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University's Lima campus. Email her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @JjSmojc. To find out more about Jessica Johnson and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.