By Tim Bamford
Content warning for mentions of racism.
The formula which underlies the Warner Bros’ biopic ‘Just Mercy’ will be familiar to most. We have all seen the movie about the crusading lawyer who takes on the systemically broken and seemingly insurmountable criminal justice system on behalf of a marginalised victim. While ‘Just Mercy’ is certainly treading on well-worn ground, this is arguably done simply out of necessity. The kinds of racism and prejudice which have informed films of the past are just as ubiquitous and pervasive today as they were when Harper Lee raised them in To Kill a Mockingbird. Until they are not, there will always be a place for films such as ‘Just Mercy’, and a corresponding duty, on behalf of the audience, to pay attention.
It’s true that Ava DuVernay’s ‘13th’ or Netflix’s ‘When They See Us’ are perhaps more deserving of the kind of critical praise that is notably absent from the reception of ‘Just Mercy. Still, the latter film has one thing which the others do not: a gifted and inspiring lawyer as its subject with important lessons to impart to those willing to listen.
Michael B. Jordan leads a stellar cast as Bryan Stevenson, an American Civil rights lawyer that Desmond Tutu described as ‘America’s young Nelson Mandela’. Stevenson authored a 2015 memoir, which serves as the source material for both the narrative and title of the film. A Harvard lawyer, Stevenson moved to the deep American South to found the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a legal practice dedicated to defending the most desperate and vulnerable victims of the criminal justice system: the poor, the disabled, the wrongfully condemned, and women and children who are cast out to the furthest reaches of the American prison system. Brie Larson is Eva Ansley, the local woman who answers Stevenson’s call for administrative help to become the EJI’s director of operations. Jamie Foxx is Walter McMillian, the man wrongly-accused of murder and six years into his time on death row before Stevenson picks up his case as one of his first after law school.
The story of Walter McMillian is central to Stevenson’s book. Stevenson intercuts McMillian’s story by alluding to other aspects of the EJI’s work, including stories that are as tragic as they are rage-inducing. Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham write a script that is largely faithful to Stevenson’s source material. Still, without the often heart-breaking commentary of Stevenson that’s readily found in the book, the film lacks the narrative impact that the book unquestionably holds.
The impact of the film is perhaps further diminished by the discovery that key climatic scenes within it are entirely fictional.
In the film, Stevenson is pulled over by a pair of police officers who proceed to threaten and intimidate him in an attempt to prevent the investigation of McMillian’s arrest and prosecution. While Stevenson was, in fact, pulled over in a similar fashion in real life, this occurred well before Stevenson was involved in the McMillian case and was the result of racial profiling rather than a crude attempt at police intimidation. Moreover, the second act of the film closes with the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals denying McMillian’s petition for a new trial in an emotional courtroom reading of the judge’s finding. The scene is moving — Stevenson is visibly rattled, the gallery erupts, and McMillian’s teenage son is arrested for contempt. In reality, this scene never occurred. The 70-page judgement denying the petition was simply faxed to Stevenson’s office.
No courtroom theatrics. No arrests.
These inaccuracies could be seen as minor. They certainly do not distort the central message of the film or invalidate the powerful statements within the film relating to criminal, racial and economic justice. They do, however, reflect the fact that the filmmakers have simply missed the point of Stevenson’s work. In doing so, an opportunity to impart Stevenson’s powerful assessment of racial and economic injustice in America has been missed.
The key lessons that we can draw from Stevenson’s work are absent from the adaptation of ‘Just Mercy’. The first is that economic and racial justice are essentially intertwined. Stevenson famously explains that his “work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded [him] that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”
Further, Stevenson clearly rejects the individualised hero-narratives that often plague Hollywood retellings of stories of injustice. Stevenson never engages in self-adulation and spends much of his memoir highlighting the contributions made by others to the EJI, rather than bringing attention to the ground-breaking work he has conducted. A film, then, which highlights Stevenson as a kind of solitary hero, would appear to fundamentally misconstrue Stevenson’s intentions.
Stevenson’s reflections highlight his belief that justice is not achieved through grandiose courtroom performances or dramatic cross-examinations. Instead, for Stevenson, justice is difficult, risky and anything but glamorous. It involves inevitable setbacks, and a commitment to strongly-held principles even when they are inconvenient. These are invaluable lessons. If only the film felt it appropriate to explore them.