Deep in Alabama, just a 90-minute drive north from Mobile, you’ll find the small town of Monroeville, home of To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee.
The folks of Monroeville, circa 1991, are proud of their literary heritage. Ask anyone, and they’ll point you to the To Kill a Mockingbird museum down the way. Or to the courthouse, where Lee had Atticus Finch make his fabled defense of a black man falsely accused of rape. It’s a civil rights landmark, they’ll tell you.
Perhaps a few—too few—would see a sad irony, too.
Walter McMillian, better known as Johnny D, is on death row. The black man was convicted of killing a white woman named Ronda Morrison: Prosecutors said that he walked into a laundromat on Nov. 1, 1986, and shot her several times in the back. In a trial that took just a day and a half, he was tried and convicted by an almost all-white jury, which recommended life in prison. Not harsh enough, the judge decided, and slapped Johnny D with the death penalty.
Never mind that the crime’s main witness was a convicted felon himself who had plenty of reason to frame McMillian. Never mind the lack of motive or physical evidence. Never mind that a score of witnesses said he was at a fish fry when the crime took place. (The fact that those witnesses were black, apparently, made their testimony unwanted.)
Enter Bryan Stevenson, a graduate of Harvard Law School who rejected a position at a posh law firm to head a non-profit legal team called the Equal Justice Initiative—an organization that gives convicted felons (particularly those on death row) the sort of legal help that might’ve escaped them the first time around. He looks into McMillian’s case and finds all sorts of inconsistencies—so many, in fact, that he wonders whether anyone read the evidence at all. If anyone deserves a second chance at justice, it’s McMillian.
But Monroeville’s power brokers don’t want to hear it. They got their man, never mind the evidence. They knew McMillian was guilty just by looking at him. And if Ronda Morrison’s spirit doesn’t rest easy, her parents sure do.
Maybe if Stevenson had looked more like Atticus Finch—a white man born and bred in the south, a man who knew everyone from the mayor and sheriff to the lady serving coffee at the corner diner—Monroeville’s power brokers might’ve listened to him.
But Stevenson’s a Delaware-born, East-coast educated black man. And Sheriff Tate and D.A. Tommy Champan don’t take kindly to carpet-bagging northerners telling them how to run their town.
Bryan Stevenson, in this movie at least, looks like a candidate for sainthood. We hear hints of his childhood, how he grew up poor, in a neighborhood not so different from McMillian’s own; and we see how his desire to help people on death row first germinated. When he leaves for Alabama, Bryan tells his nervous mother that she “always taught me to fight for the people need it the most.”
Outside these brief early snippets, though, we don’t see much of the guy’s personal life. And no wonder, given his single-minded dedication to his work and the clients he defends. He stays up all night working, pushes tirelessly against unfair barriers and even risks his life. And those who work with Bryan sometimes risk theirs, too.
Eva Ansley, who works closely with Bryan, notes that unlike most lawyers, Bryan gets close to his clients—so much so that they become nearly family to him. And when one of those clients is sent to the electric chair in spite of Bryan’s help, the condemned man thinks so highly of Bryan that he has the Army (from which he was honorably discharged) send the flag he earned to the lawyer.
While “Johnny D” McMillian is no saint (as we’ll see), he becomes a strong, faithful friend to many fellow death-row prisoners. When one suffers a panic attack after getting an execution date, Johnny D walks him through calming breathing and visualization exercises. “Whatever you did,” Johnny tells the man, “Your life is still meaningful.” And when that man is led to the execution chamber, Johnny D leads a noisy salute to the condemned. He’s deeply saddened by how he hurt his family, too, and wants to do whatever he can to make amends. And sometimes, when the case against him seems to hit a wall, Johnny D encourages Bryan, rather than the other way around.
While Just Mercy isn’t technically a Christian movie, faith’s fingerprints are everywhere here.
Bryan, it’s suggested, is a Christian: He bonds with a death-row inmate over how both of them grew up in church. (Bryan played the piano there, while the convict sang in the church choir.) And when the guard roughs up the convict and forces him out of the room, the prisoner begins to sing an old hymn with a smile. Later, Bryan participates in a worship ceremony at a Monroeville church—watching and singing along as fellow congregants enthusiastically praise God.
A convict is led to the electric chair as the gospel song “Old Rugged Cross” plays in the background. The movie seems to suggest thin parallels between the man’s execution and Jesus’ own unjustified death: The condemned man looks compassionately at one of the jail guards fastening his leg to the chair, and when he asks whether he has any last words to give, he simply says that he harbors “no ill will” to anyone. The man’s gentleness, combined with the horrific way he dies, deeply impacts the guard—much as Jesus’ own forgiveness from the cross is sometimes shown to impact the Roman soldiers who took part in the execution.
As mentioned, Johnny D was actually attending a fish fry during the murder he was accused of committing—a fundraiser, we’re told, for the church he attended. The spiritual “Lay Down My Life for the Lord” plays as the credits roll. We see plenty of churches and crosses in the background of various scenes.
Before being accused of murder, Johnny D was caught fooling around with a white woman—an act of infidelity that made him a target, he and his family believe. As soon as Johnny D’s dalliances became widely known, unfounded stories about him quickly began to circulate: Soon people were saying that he was a drug dealer, too, and then a leader of the Dixie mafia.
A guard forces Bryan to strip before entering a prison (which I’ll say more about in Other Negative Content).
A couple of women stare at Bryan as he works, with one telling the other that he’s a good-looking single guy. The other woman corrects her, telling her that Bryan’s “married—to his work.”
Bryan and his work partner, Eva, engender some ill will around town. One disgruntled Alabaman calls Eva at home, telling her he’s put a bomb in her house. After she, her family and Bryan evacuate, police don’t find anything, but Eva is understandably shaken. “Maybe people will stop trying to kill us when they realize how charming we are,” she jokes grimly.
Bryan, meanwhile, is harassed by police: He’s stopped on the road for no apparent reason; and, when he asks why he’s been pulled over, one of the arresting officers pulls his gun and screams for Bryan to get out of the car. The officer shoves the lawyer against the hood and pushes the barrel of the gun into his neck. Eventually, after several tense moments, the officers allow Bryan to leave without offering a word of explanation. It’s not the only time we see police manhandling or mistreating people in their custody.
A man is executed. Though we don’t see the man die, we watch witnesses to the execution as they watch, absorbing the horror they feel. Another convict says he was on death row during another execution, with his room being the closest to the “kill room.” He says he could smell and even taste the flesh of his old friend in the air.
After a disappointing court date, Johnny D resists being put back in his cell: Guards are forced to shove him in and restrain him. We hear about the alleged crimes of death row inmates—particularly that of a man who killed a woman by placing a bomb on her front porch. The man—a Vietnam vet who struggles mightily with post-traumatic stress disorder—struggles to understand why he’d even do such a thing. Another convict has disfiguring scars, apparently the result of a fiery accident he had when he was 7 years old.
Though the story centers around Ronda Morrison’s murder—a “terrible” and “horrific” crime, we’re told—the film steers clear of unpacking the details of her murder. We occasionally see a static photo of Ronda when she was still alive.
We hear about 15 s-words. We also hear at least one f-word, though perhaps the hints of a few others can be heard in the background. Characters also say “a–,” “b–ch,” “d–n,” “h—” and the n-word. God’s name is misused twice, once paired with “d–n.”
Eva and her husband drink beer over dinner, as Bryan sips a glass of water. One or two characters smoke cigarettes.
A prison guard forces Bryan to strip before entering a prison—even though the law explicitly states that lawyers don’t have to do so before talking with prospective clients. Bryan takes off his shirt, pants and finally (off-camera) his boxers. The guard then increases Bryan’s humiliation by telling the lawyer to “bend over and spread.” The horrified Bryan waits a beat before the guard smirks and tells Bryan he can get dressed again. The guard’s actions clearly communicate his desire to humiliate Bryan and to demonstrate his perceived power over the lawyer.
We see plenty of racism, both overt and covert, in Just Mercy—suggesting that prejudice is alive and well in this corner of Alabama in the early 1990s. In addition, police—especially Sheriff Tate—lie and coerce witnesses in order to push McMillian into the electric chair. Just Mercy suggests that Monroeville’s District Attorney, Tommy Champan, is a man who should know better—but for most of the movie blithely and bitterly defends McMillian’s conviction.
Just Mercy is based on a book of the same name written by the real Bryan Stevenson—a legal advocate who’s spent the better part of three decades crusading for the rights and better legal representation for those convicted of crimes in the South, especially those on death row.
Some might be inclined, I suppose, to see a political bent in Stevenson’s work. And some might be discomfited by the movie’s depiction of southern Alabama in the not-so-distant past. I have relatives who live in Alabama, and I’d like to think that some progress—difficult and halting progress, perhaps, but progress nevertheless—has been made since then.
But if history teaches us anything, evil—and no doubt, racism is one of the planet’s most pernicious evils—does not disappear naturally with time. It takes work and courage and risk and pain to address it. Oh, and faith, too.
Just Mercy is a beautiful example of the work, the courage and the faith it takes to push against the wrongs of this world: faith that a broken system can still be repaired enough to yield a semblance of justice. Faith that good people can stand up for a good reason. Faith in God, too, whose presence we subtly feel throughout the film.
Theaters are filled with secular movies that are either indifferent or outright hostile to faith, with only the occasional small, overtly Christian faith-based flick offering counterprogramming. Just Mercy finds the middle ground, showing how faith can inspire and motivate believers in the real world.
The movie is not without some issues, of course, as we’ve already detailed. But those are relatively minor in relation to its redemptive payoff. Anchored by the strong performances of Michael B. Jordan (Bryan) and Jamie Foxx (Johnny D), Just Mercy is an inspirational, educational and well-acted portrait of the pursuit of true justice.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.