“Just Mercy” tells the true story of a lawyer trying to acquit a man on death row.
Films that tell a great story are easy to find. Visit any theater in Tulsa and whatever you choose will likely offer one. But a film that tells a true story, a story that is little discussed and covers a topic that is also little discussed, and makes it great, is a powerful film.
I made it to Circle Cinema on Monday, Feb. 3, to see “Just Mercy” (2019), starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx. As the lights dimmed, a message appeared on the screen: “Just Mercy: Introduction by Tulsa’s Tim Blake Nelson.” Nelson then appeared on the screen and welcomed the audience personally to Circle Cinema, explained how much he loved his home town of Tulsa and thanked them for watching the film. Having not seen Nelson in the trailers, I was wondering what kind of character he played. How would Nelson represent Tulsa in this film about such an important racial subject?
In “Just Mercy,” Jordan plays Bryan, a Harvard Law graduate who moves to Alabama in the late 1980s to pursue justice for inmates who have been incarcerated for high crimes and are on death row. He takes on the case of Walter “Johnnie Dee” McMillian (Foxx), a black man arrested on charges for murdering a white teenager, Ronda Morrison.
The problem? There is only one thin testimony against Walter from a white convicted felon, Ralph Myers, played by Tulsa’s Tim Blake Nelson. Additionally, there are 20 undocumented testimonies that Walter was away at a neighborhood fish fry during the crime scene. All of the police officials denounce Bryan’s hope of providing justice for Walter as naivety for the systematic racial dominance in Alabama, but Bryan pushes through, dead end after dead end.
From the beginning, Jordan’s acting is very reserved and professional, something I haven’t seen from him. He is patient amidst all of the setbacks he endures, and while it’s a bit frustrating to witness him not get angry at his opponents, it’s amazing to witness an actor take on a role that is new for him, and that seems to be a staple of Jordan’s career in film. Foxx’s character could have been portrayed in lots of different ways, but he puts his own unique style into the performance, creating a persona that lacks the hopefulness and patience of Jordan’s acting, but nevertheless is full of emotion.
Nelson’s character, Ralph, testifies that he was pressured by the Alabama police to give a false testimony, not only to lessen his own sentencing, but also to stop the police from torturing him. In the hearing, Ralph states that he never wanted to do anything wrong, and even though the local judge denied Walter a retrial, Bryan’s petition to the Alabama state supreme court to drop all charges for Walter was approved, finally obtaining just mercy for Walter, and a large victory for equal justice.
Jordan and Foxx’s portrayals add a lot to this already rich true story, and director Destin Daniel Creton offers a stunning and engaging presentation of the film’s original screenplay, which was written in part by Bryan Stevenson himself. The pacing is excruciatingly emotional, especially during a very visceral and disturbingly sad execution scene. Throughout the film, Creton’s narrative is consistent and not overdramatized, because the plot points are by themselves, extremely meaningful and represent a larger issue that still happens today.
After the film, I thought about the real Bryan Stevenson, and how he’s been bringing justice to disadvantaged people for decades. I believe that he is saying that it is up to all of us to see the injustice that takes part in our societal institutions that we may also be a part of, and make a stand for others who may be at a disadvantage to us. This story is just one of many injustices that take place everyday in our society, and we must all contribute to helping bring justice to those who deserve it.