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The Lesson Behind Cretton’s “Just Mercy”

By Lucia Arreola

Walter McMillian was arrested for the murder of an 18-year-old girl and was immediately sent to Alabama’s death row before his trial in 1987. When he finally received a trial, it took less than two days to convict him and officially sentence him. Without the dedication of lawyer Bryan Stevenson, his story would have ended there. Now, it has been adapted into a legal drama film.

Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Just Mercy” intends to start conversations about the American justice system and its internal flaws that present themselves as the film progresses. Michael B. Jordan stars as Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard law graduate determined to help his community by any means possible. Jamie Foxx portrays Walter McMillian, who depends on his family, his friends and his Director of Operations Eva Ansley. Ansley — played by Brie Larson — provides Stevenson with assistance and hope during this case’s most crucial moments. 

This true story takes place in Monroeville, which happens to be the birthplace of Harper Lee, the author behind “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The irony of this fact is not lost on Cretton, who cleverly uses it to highlight the injustice McMillian and other men on death row endured for years. The prosecuting attorney Tommy Chapman — portrayed by Rafe Spall — describes McMillian’s case in an ignorant and idle manner. He says that the state should not look for another suspect when they have a suitable one already incarcerated. Directly afterwards, he suggests visiting the “To Kill a Mockingbird” museum to an internally exasperated yet outwardly calm Stevenson. 

Jordan plays the role of Bryan Stevenson excellently, with composed comportment in the face of corruption and compassionate understanding when speaking with clients. He has believable chemistry with his co-stars on screen, his character drawing smiles out of prisoners and worried family members with ease. Jordan enters the role of Bryan Stevenson with confidence and he acts as a beacon of hope in the narrative. Prison bars move multiple times across his face and open for him as if suggesting how he will eventually free the innocent who have been confined without due cause.

Cretton also takes shots of wide open spaces and clear blue skies in between prison scenes to reinforce the importance of freedom and how it should not be taken for granted by those who possess it. When calming down a fellow inmate, McMillian tells him to close his eyes and picture the sky. The moment transports them to the first shot of the movie, where there is a piece of open sky visible through the branches of the trees deep in the forest.

Foxx does a superb job nailing each facet of McMillian’s emotional range. He bangs on tables with true rage, boiling with frustration over his unjust journey to deathrow. He coldly rejects Stevenson when they first meet, having been taught the hard way not to trust anyone. He speaks about his family with sincere warmth and love. Foxx approaches every scene with the right tone, spot on.

The original score — composed by Joel P. West — acted as a key component to the story as a whole. When overlooked details of the case are brought forward, pensive music plays to encourage Stevenson’s thought process on how to incorporate them into their defense. However, when Stevenson is pulled over for no reason and McMillian’s friend is denied an appeal, the music stops, allowing despair to take over the scene. One exception is the electrocution sequence, when Herbert Richardson — played by Rob Morgan — specifically asks for his favorite song to play while he is in the electric chair. 

Ansley is shown to be a loyal associate, a caring mother and a dependable friend. Larson is able to bring fullness to a character who could have easily slipped into the background. She brings attentiveness and assistance while also standing up for what is right and making sacrifices of her own, such as risking her safety and losing allies because of who she is affiliated with. When Ansley is threatened over the phone for defending McMillian, the fear on Larson’s face is apparent and the audience can almost see her quick thinking as she grabs her son and warns her family to get out of the house with credible panic. Whenever she talks to Stevenson, Larson promotes the value in listening and demonstrates her attention instead of taking over the scene.

This movie resonates in modern times because it encourages the audience to start discussions about ideas of right and wrong. It warns about the manipulation of the American justice system with its deceitful officers and incompetent trial processing. Because the movie is based on facts, it makes a more powerful statement on the exploitation of the death penalty. Many characters shape the story of this film, as each person holds responsibility for the consequences their actions provoke. “Just Mercy” seeks to inspire morality; it should not be ignored because its message reinforces the significance of truth and courage.