Patrick B. McGuigan
In “Just Mercy,” actor Michael B. Jordan is solid and believable as attorney Bryan Stevenson, who garnered worldwide acclaim for his work (through the Equal Justice Institute) achieving exonerating for men wrongfully convicted of murders. Most notable of his victories was for Walter McMillian, portrayed by Jamie Foxx, who delivers in this film his finest portrayal since “Any Given Sunday.”
Brie Larson has a strong turn as Eva Ansley, an Alabama idealist who, in the end, convert ideals into reality.
Contrary to some sneering commentaries, the performances in director Destin Daniel Cretton’s film are – for this reviewer, at least – believable and largely sympathetic.
Rafe Spall is the tough local prosecutor (Tommy Chapman) who is ultimately pulled (far enough to matter) into the light of truth. Karan Kendrick is Walter’s wife (Minnie) who forgives her man’s indiscretions to maintain hearth and home during his six years on death row for a crime he did not commit.
Rob Morgan is a revelation as Herbert Richardson, facing execution for a horrible murder, the prosecution of which did not take account of his PTSD after (heroic) military service. In a supporting role, rapper OMG (O’Shea Jackson, Jr. as Anthony Ray Hinton) leaves an indelible memory for viewers.
Michael Harding (Sheriff Tate) renders the film’s least sympathetic character, the arresting officer in McMillian’s case. Tate was so bound and determined to find Ronda Morrison’s killer — and so willing to pin the girl’s death on a black man — that he did not quibble with things like evidence, motive and witness reliability.
Tim Blake Nelson, as Ralph Myers, is superb as the troubled soul whose recantation brings ultimate rough justice.
Every legal case is, in one way or another, unique. Still, pressured confessions are a regular occurrence in criminal cases. This is no surprise and is, in fact, a well-documented staple of both non-fiction and fiction literature and academic studies.
There is a not-so-fine line between aggressive prosecution and prosecutorial abuse. For that matter, there are scores of distinctions to be made between swift action to find and arrest suspects and abusive policing. These distinctions, in fact, are often best described in the work of officials within the criminal justice system. It is no secret that many of the most significant exonerations of wrongfully convicted men have come after prosecutors (present and former) and police officers joined efforts to revisit controversial convictions. ‘Just Mercy’ portrays the slow-motion shift of a prosecutor willing to take a new look at a predecessor’s decisions in an important case.
Oklahoma has issues within its criminal justice system, which legislators and citizens have begun to address over the past decade. Even in light of the bold reforms enacted, with bipartisan support, in Governor Kevin Stitt’s first year in office, the system as a whole is still in need of incremental reform.
The process for the death penalty, in contrast, remains in need of comprehensive reform – and many who once supported capital punishment believe the Ultimate Sanction should be put aside in light of the national history of wrongful murder convictions, and specific concerns about several cases in Oklahoma. And, to be sure, some oppose executions in all cases.
The back-story for “Just Mercy” is one, that with some changes, could apply to several cases in Oklahoma. The most obvious is that of Julius Darius Jones, now on Oklahoma’s death row for a murder in Edmond that many, including this writer, believe he did not commit.
More than a year ago, the Oklahoma County prosecutor agreed to release to Jones’ defense lawyers files that have never been examined by defense attorneys. He reneged on that pledge, and that is a shame. He needs to keep his promise, let Jones’ counsel examine the files in question, and let the chips fall where they may. That is a matter of justice. The potential impact of such a review is a central part of the story in “Just Mercy.”
A fellow Roman Catholic, John Mallon, was an opponent of capital punishment long before me. In one of our conversations long ago, he said: “In the end, each man wants mercy for himself. For everyone else, he demands judgment.”
John is an honest soul. I don’t recall if he attributed those words to someone else, but credit him for driving it home to me. Over many years, evidence convinced me there are too many wrongful convictions that yield death sentences. And, of course, one is one too many.
As a film aiming for a broad audience, “Just Mercy” succeeds. Even given the somber subject, it is frequently entertaining. Just over two hours, it is PG-13 for language and subject.
“Just Mercy” embodies the truth my friend sketched for me long ago: Every person hopes for mercy when the end comes, but along the way should respect justice, more than judgment, for all.
Warts and all, this film tells a story of justice finally achieved.
Have just mercy, O Lord, on us all.
Note: This review is adapted from a shorter story that appears in The City Sentinel’s February 2020 print edition. Pat McGuigan is the author of three books and editor of seven, including ‘Crime and Punishment in Modern America (1986). He has written hundreds of commentaries and news reports on legal policy issues over the last 40 years. Beth Roetker and Karen Martinez, both St. Charles Borromeo newspaper students, provided research assistance for this story.