As the film opened in 1987 on a rural highway in Alabama, I began to sweat as I realized that I wasn’t prepared for the suspense involved in watching Just Mercy. The film tells the start of real-life Bryan Stevenson’s career as he discovers his calling to work on systemic injustice in Alabama. This movie focuses on his first cases and Jamie Foxx stars as Walter McMillan, one of his early clients who was falsely accused of murder and awaiting a death sentence.
How do you make a legal case dramatic? Pick relevant topics: unequal judicial systems largely because of race and poverty, the importance of truth and the rule of law. Then tell the story in a way that we can root for the characters played by an excellent cast. Michael B. Jordan produced the film and plays the founding attorney of Equal Justice Initiative with such stoicism and self-control.
For Stevenson is a man to be admired and his work, not just in working with people wrongly accused, but also in working for systemic change in the judicial system for children tried as adults and given life sentences or death penalties, makes him heroic. Add to this writing a powerful book, Just Mercy, and then creating the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery. This was the draw for my Civil Rights Crawl and inspired me to write my travel guide. Thank you Mr. Stevenson.
There are many tough moments to watch in the film. I squirmed at various points, and dove under my sweater as it became clear that we may see an electrocution on death row. I don’t know what was finally shown because I had my eyes shut tight. It was intended to be horrifying and succeeded.
There were many stories in the book that could have been the focus of the film. It is interesting that the screenwriter chose to focus on Mr. McMillan’s story as it is set in Monroeville, Alabama, the home of Harper Lee (author of To Kill a Mockingbird). At one point a cheerful denizen of Monroeville asks Stevenson if he’s been to the Mockingbird Museum in the old courthouse. “You can see where Atticus Finch stood.” At this point the irony is hip deep.
The Equal Justice Initiative’s work is ongoing. Stay till the end so you can see the “where are they now” facts as the credits role. The corrupt sheriff featured in the McMillan case was re-elected six more times before retiring in 2019.
This is one of a series of occasional reviews of resources you may want to check out before visiting Alabama for your Civil Rights Crawl. Not everyone finds reading pleasurable, so it is good to be able to watch this 2 hour and 16 minute film. It is rated PG-13 and would be suitable to watch with groups of people 13 and over with discussion afterward.