Graduating from Harvard in the early 80s, Bryan Stevenson decided to move to Alabama to defend those who found themselves wrongly convicted or offered terrible legal counsel.
He quickly discovered a system of institutional racism that oppressed not just the people it directly affected, but the black community as a whole.
Just Mercy is the story of his work through the Equal Justice Initiative that offered free legal counsel to men on death row, convicted of crimes thanks to paper-thin evidence or who were so poorly defended at trial they had no business being there.
Following Stevenson as he graduates, establishes the EJI and comes of age as a civil rights lawyer in America’s south, the film’s emotional heart lies with three inmates: Jamie Foxx’s Walter McMillian, Rob Morgan’s Herb Richardson and O’Shea Jackson Jr as Anthony Ray Hinton.
While the three of them being held next to each other on death row is a dramatic contrivance, they represent the varied aspects of wrongful convictions that span lack of evidence, mental health issues and just downright racism.
Their three-handed scene that precedes one of the film’s most harrowing moments is deeply affecting.
Courtroom dramas have a tendency to overplay the drama of the dialogue exchanged during trial. Parrot the phrases learned from them in front of a lawyer and you'll quickly be told that no one really says “the defense rests” et al.
Regardless, those impassioned, rousing speeches offer dramatic power in what could be stuffy and ultimately dull scenario- anyone who’s watched the painfully slow courtroom recordings from Netflix’s Making a Murderer can attest to that.
That Just Mercy manages to create drama, tension and empathy without falling back on grandstanding courtroom speeches is testament to the understated performances of a great ensemble cast.
Michael B Jordan, Brie Larsson, Jamie Foxx and Rafe Spall are the big names here but the whole cast are excellent.
Satisfying but not saccharine, Just Mercy highlights Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative’s work, as well as the plight of the poorest and marginalized in America’s legal system. Go and see it.