‘Just Mercy’ chronicles the quest for justice

“Just Mercy” (2019). Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Brie Larson, Jamie Foxx, Rafe Spall, Tim Blake Nelson, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Rob Morgan, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Karan Kendrick, Michael Harding, Lindsay Ayliffe, Dominic Bogart, C.J. LeBlanc, Andrene Ward-Hammond, Rhoda Griffis. Director: Destin Daniel Cretton. Screenplay: Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham. Book: Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy. Web site. Trailer.

One would like to hope that justice is served every time a legal matter arises, but, fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), most of us are wise enough to realize that’s not the case. That’s especially troubling in proceedings where capital punishment is concerned, given the ramifications involved. We can only hope that matters turn out as they should and that the truth is not sacrificed in the process. Such is the dicey conundrum raised in the gripping new, fact-based legal drama, “Just Mercy.”

In 1986, logger Walter “Johnny D.” McMillan (Jamie Foxx) was on his way home from working in the woods near Monroeville, Alabama, when he was stopped at a roadblock and questioned by the local sheriff (Michael Harding). Perplexed at what was happening, Walter quickly learned that he was the prime suspect in the murder of Ronda Morrison, an 18-year-old dry cleaner clerk, a crime for which he was subsequently arrested, convicted, imprisoned and sentenced to death.

The fact that the murder victim was a White woman and that Walter was a Black man was passed off as incidental. But, with this being small-town Alabama, old prejudices lingered even decades after the days of the Civil Rights Movement and despite the fact that Walter had no history of violence. In fact, the only “notoriety” he had earned was for a widely known extramarital affair that he had with a White woman, something that, in the minds of authorities, somehow automatically made him a suspect in an otherwise-unrelated murder. And, because of this, an innocent man now faced the prospect of execution for a crime he didn’t commit. However, an advocate for Walter’s justice would soon be on his way.

In 1989, idealistic young African-American lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) moved to Alabama to work with poor individuals who could not afford legal representation. Having grown up in Delaware with Northern sensibilities, this relocation to the South was something of an eye-opener for the Harvard Law School graduate. However, despite the differences in attitude, Stevenson was by no means naïve, a trait that enabled him to navigate the local conditions and prompted him to work even more aggressively on his clients’ behalf. That was particularly true when he began assisting prisoners on death row.

With the assistance of inmate rights advocate Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), Bryan launched the Equal Justice Initiative to help the underprivileged. But, when he initially met with Walter, he found his prospective client to be quite discouraged, essentially reconciled to his fate. In fact, Bryan had to work hard to convince Walter that it was worth making the effort to take another look at his case. It proved to be a worthwhile decision.

Bryan quickly learned that local officials were so anxious to allay public fears about Morrison’s death that they were willing to do virtually anything to obtain a conviction to be able to say that the murder had been solved, whether or not that was indeed true. In line with that, Bryan discovered that Walter had been found guilty on the basis of flimsy evidence, mostly the questionable and contradictory testimony of convicted felon Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), who apparently agreed to provide authorities what they wanted in exchange for a lighter sentence in his own pending trial. What’s more, numerous witnesses who placed Walter at a church fish fry at the time of the murder were never questioned about their knowledge of his whereabouts. So, given the foregoing, Bryan sought to get Walter a new trial, one through which he was convinced his client would be exonerated.

However, moving forward proved more difficult than anticipated. When Bryan met with prosecutor Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall) to seek his cooperation, he refused to help. And, when McMillan family friend Darnell Houston (Darrell Britt-Gibson) agreed to testify in Walter’s defense, he was arrested for perjury, a deliberate act of harassment by authorities aimed at intimidating a potentially key witness from speaking up. These developments called for Bryan to become more aggressive – and more creative – in coming up with tactics to counter opponents who were committed to thwart the attorney’s efforts at every turn. But, with an innocent man’s life on the line, drastic measures are sometimes necessary, as Bryan and Walter found out as their story played out.

It’s a pretty safe bet that the majority of us believe in the notion of fairness, especially where justice is concerned. That’s why it so strongly irks us when we see it being compromised or circumvented, especially in legal matters. That’s perhaps most true where capital crimes and punishment are involved; getting things right is so supremely important, because there’s no going back once the sentence is carried out. And pity those who get it wrong.

The strength of our feelings about such matters is so great because of the beliefs that underlie them. Over time, those beliefs gradually translate from theoretical constructs into tangible, realized outcomes, and, given that they relate to life and death matters and the ultimate fate of living and breathing individuals, there’s much at stake, a testament to the power behind these notions. Because of that, we must proceed with the utmost of caution when addressing these issues and the beliefs that underlie them, for they will surely result in manifestations of their original essence, just as anything else does that arises through the conscious creation process, the philosophy that explains how such tangible outcomes are brought into being.

This naturally raises the importance of our manifesting beliefs being infused with truthfulness, sincerity and, above all, integrity. We must be scrupulously thorough in processing such matters, doing all we can to discover the truth, formulating beliefs in line with that and coming up with solutions that adequately address the matters at hand. This is no time to let undue prejudices interfere with our scrutiny. This is no time to let laziness or sloppiness impinge upon our analyses. And, most of all, this is no time to put on blinders or leave things to chance. We must be clear in our beliefs considering that we hold another’s life in our hands.

Which is why it’s so vital that the accused have astute, courageous advocates who can stand up for those who may not be able to fight for themselves as effectively as they otherwise might. These champions often possess the qualities described above and don’t hesitate to employ them in their beliefs and actions to aid those whose lives hang in the balance. They’re firm in their commitments to get at the truth and to raise it to the surface in the cause of justice, as well as in defeating those who would deliberately use subterfuge to subvert this principle and serve their own particular agendas. And, if these advocates perform their duties as they should, the truth will out.

As noted above, engaging in such endeavors requires facing one’s fears, for if these apprehension-based beliefs are allowed to hold sway, they could easily undermine efforts at getting to the truth. This can be difficult even for those who are perceived as being intrinsically powerful. Consider Bryan’s foray into the Alabama criminal justice system of the 1980s and ʻ90s. Despite his Harvard degree, his legal expertise and the backing of the law, he was nevertheless treading into heavily prejudicial territory where many believed a Black man simply was not supposed to wield that kind of power in the first place (let alone be able to make use of it in the support of a racial peer who had been allegedly rightfully convicted of a crime for which he was now living out the sentence served upon him). Such an undertaking could be seen as akin to stepping into the lion’s den, an act of true courage, the kind that sweeps aside fear-based beliefs and enables one to move forward forthrightly to achieve a just and resolute outcome. Now, this is not to suggest that every attorney is some kind of superhero, but those who willingly take on ventures like this often possess the right mix of beliefs to carry out their missions, backed by the types of acumen and actions needed to facilitate them.

As valuable as integrity and courage are, however, sometimes they may not be enough under especially tricky circumstances, as Bryan discovered in his defense of Walter. He found that he needed to get creative in his approach, tapping into his imagination and devising unconventional plans to move his case forward. Given the obstacles being placed before him, Bryan needed to come up with beliefs for solutions that obliterated these limitations and enabled him to get his client’s case heard. This is the kind of ingenuity that conscious creation is designed to help foster, and, fortunately, Bryan had the vision to employ it in his efforts. And, even if he never heard of this philosophy, he obviously understood its principles, making use of them in masterful ways in the face of formidable opposition.

Those who excel in endeavors like this often reap tremendous rewards for their work. But, then, that’s because they’re driven to do it in the first place, following their hearts and beliefs to get the job done – and feeling the devastation when they don’t, incidents that ultimately prompt them to work that much harder at achieving success the next time around. What’s most important, though, is that they stick with their initiatives, because such efforts represent their value fulfillment, the conscious creation concept associated with being our best, truest selves for the betterment of ourselves and those around us. In the work that Bryan did in Walter’s case, and in the many others with additional clients that followed, he has lived out his value fulfillment, bringing attention – and rectification – to many seemingly hopeless situations where justice indeed needed to be served.

Despite some occasional pacing issues and a storytelling approach that’s fairly conventional for films of this type, “Just Mercy” nevertheless reaches out and grabs viewers with an intensity that earns the genuinely heartfelt emotions it evokes from audiences. With fine performances by Jordan and Screen Actors Guild Award nominee Foxx, the picture touches in ways that movies of this stripe typically don’t despite similarity in subject matter and narrative. In fact, the film is so effective in conveying its message that it received the Freedom of Expression Award from the National Board of Review.

One would think in this day and age that we shouldn’t need films with stories like this any more, that we’ve moved beyond having to be reminded of messages like this. Various other pictures, such as “Crown Heights” (2017), “Brian Banks” (2018), “Monsters and Men” (2018) and the recently released “Clemency” (2019), among others, have poignantly dealt with issues of miscarriages of justice and/or questionable death sentences involving minorities, so another story in this same vein might easily be seen as redundant. Yet, given the prevailing conditions in our increasingly polarized society, it’s obvious the need is still there, and, thankfully, we have pictures like “Just Mercy” to step up and help fill that void. Let’s hope that need disappears one day – and preferably sooner rather than later.

Copyright © 2020, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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