Nearly 34 years ago, 18-year-old Ronda Morrison was shot and killed in Monroeville, Ala. The crime went unsolved for more than six months, until Walter McMillian was arrested and charged with the murder with no evidence beyond the testimony of a white felon facing additional charges of his own. McMillian, an African-American, was tried and convicted, and sentenced to death row despite jurors recommending life in prison.
McMillian’s story is at the center of “Just Mercy,” director Destin Daniel Cretton’s latest film, starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx as McMillian. Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson, a familiar name in the ongoing civil rights movement, who has fought for and helped save more than 140 inmates from death row through the Equal Justice Initiative. Before Stevenson was an accomplished lawyer and savior of many, he was fresh out of law school and wanted to start a good cause — a cause that brought him to Monroeville, Ala. in the late 1980s.
“Just Mercy” is a true-life legal drama that, on the surface, shares similarities with courtroom drama greats like “A Few Good Men,” or the more thematically-related “A Time to Kill.” But while those movies rely on the typical Hollywood structure of rousing speeches and narrative twists at the last minute in order for justice to prevail with a storybook ending, Cretton’s work is much more grounded in reality. Granted, there are certain moments played up for drama to make a riveting experience, but it’s all based in truth — a very sad and depressing truth.
Jordan continues to prove himself as one of the best young actors in Hollywood. Viewers first see him as a young, inexperienced legal intern visiting a death row inmate no older than he is in his early 20s. The two former church choir boys share their common experiences and create a bond in that moment that is soon shattered by an overly-combative white police officer.
The next time he’s on screen, he’s much more confident and ready to take on the injustices he’s witnessed. As the movie progresses over the course of five years, you see Jordan’s performance change and evolve from that meek intern into the hero willing to stand before the Supreme Court to demand justice.
Foxx’s electric performance is just as commanding, albeit more subdued and depressing. His McMillian originally fights for hope and holds onto the idea that he will be freed. But when he sees his neighbor, Herb Richardson, marched off to die — in what is one of the most powerful sequences of the whole film — we see McMillian begin to lose hope. Through Foxx’s eyes, we see the fruitless cause that so many black men and women face — the idea that at any moment, they can be arrested and convicted of crimes they did not commit, simply because they are black. It’s easy to understand how McMillian could lose hope so quickly.
When watching “Just Mercy,” it can be easy to forget the movie takes place within the lifetimes of even younger millennials. So many of us were taught in school that the civil rights movement took place in the 1950s-60s and concluded with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The idea of a black man being charged with a murder by a racist county sheriff and racist district attorney who both knew he was innocent was something that only happened 20 years before, right? “In the Heat of the Night” dealt with the same situation in 1967. But justice — equal justice — is still elusive to so many black men and women today — let alone nearly 34 years ago.
“Just Mercy” was filmed and released late last year — before the recent protests began in the name of George Floyd, but it’s a movie that is as timely as ever. It’s easy to draw comparisons between McMillian, who died in 2013 due to early onset dementia as a result of his six years on death row, and Floyd. Even as individuals like Stevenson continue to fight for the rights of black citizens, there remains a sharp divide in the rights of white citizens and minorities. What happened 34 years ago to McMillian could and does happen today, in 2020.
Warner Bros. has released “Just Mercy” for free on multiple video-on-demand services throughout the month of June. It might be cynical to see this move as nothing more than a cheap cash grab in an attempt to get more eyes on the film, or as some sort of social justice ploy to garner good press. Either way, it’s still a movie that everyone should watch during these uncertain times. It’s easy to watch the news, or check out social media, and see people protesting and calls for equality, and brush them off without much of a thought. “Just Mercy” shows exactly what those protestors are fighting against.
Josh Rouse lives in Lawton.