Just Mercy is based on the true story of Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan), a Harvard Law student who meets a death row inmate during a summer internship. The experience affects him deeply, prompting him to move to Alabama after graduation and offer free legal services to anyone in need.
One of his first clients is Walter “Johnnie D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who was arrested and sentenced to death for the brutal murder of an 18-year-old girl on the testimony of a single witness. As soon as he begins investigating, he discovers some significant flaws in the case, both with the scant evidence presented and the witness’s testimony.
But even with clear evidence to prove his client’s innocence, it is no easy task to which Stevenson has set himself. The community is largely against him, one key witness backed out due to intimidation, and the arresting sheriff is in cahoots with the new DA to ensure that McMillian never makes it out of prison alive.
Just Mercy is the kind of film that makes you mad, as it should. There’s little if any justice to be found here, only systemic racism and exploited inequality—the kinds of things we’d all like to think didn’t exist, but are tragically still part of our cultural identity.
Regardless of your thoughts on the death penalty itself, this film brings to light some crucial issues surrounding it. As we’re reminded toward the end, for every nine people executed, one is exonerated—a shocking level of error at any time, and even mores when human lives hang in the balance.
Note: the Equal Justice Initiative, which Bryan Stevenson started in 1989, is still in operation today. You can learn more at eji.org.