Political Film Review #610

JUST MERCY HONORS THE ONE WHO GOT 140 BLACKS RELEASED FROM DEATH ROW

Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan) decided to establish the Equal Justice Initiative in Monroe County, Alabama, in 1989. Mistreated as an African American while growing up in Delaware, he accepted an invitation from local advocate Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) to utilize his recent Harvard law degree to save Blacks from unjust convictions that result in death sentences. Indeed, statistics presented in the final credits report that 1 out of 9 persons on death row have been proven innocent.

Shortly after Just Mercy begins, Stevenson goes to the W.C. Holman Correction Facility to interview all those on death row. One in particular stands out—Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who was convicted of murder in the town of Monroeville, where a museum based on To Kill a Mockingbird is located. Demonstrable bias is involved, as Stevenson learns that Johnny D was placed in a death row cell even before his trial! Johnny D’s family, whom Stevenson meets, can vouch for his presence with them at the time of the murder.  Through personal and documentary discovery, Stevenson learns that Johnny D was convicted on the basis of a confession by Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), an imprisoned White felon who claimed to be a witness. But in an earlier tape recording, Myers said that he knew nothing of the murder. Later, Myers was willing to provide false testimony to serve a shorter sentence. So Stevenson must appeal to Myers to repudiate his false testimony, and he succeeds by pointing out that Johnny D has three children who miss their dad. But District Attorney Tommy Champan (Rafe Spall) is adamant that the conviction must stand. Stevenson then has to file motions in court to get justice. The motion for a new trial, however, is denied by the local court despite Morse’s admission before the court that his previous court testimony was false. Stevenson also loses an appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court to order a new trial. Stevenson then decides to go public with the case, and is featured in a segment on 60 Minutes. Next, Stevenson files a motion for dismissal of the case at the appellate level. Humiliated by the 60 Minutes segment, Champan does not contest the motion, and Johnny D leaves the prison as a free man.

Throughout the film, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, emotions are displayed in many scenes, including the execution of one of the death row inmates near to Johnny D’s cell. Stevenson is forced to strip for searching in the prison before seeing his potential clients. While driving, two police stop him, and one has him get out of the car and spread his hands over the car while the other searches for something, presumably drugs. There is even a bomb threat to Ansley’s house, after which he opens a legal office with a few assistants. His book, Just Mercy (2014), is the basis for Just Mercy, which has been nominated for best film exposé and best film on human rights of 2019.  MH