A compelling tale of racist bigotry in the Deep South

A compelling tale of racist bigotry in the Deep South Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy Photo: IrishTimes

In 1987, an innocent African American man called Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx) was sentenced to death for the murder of an 18-year-old girl in Alabama. He was convicted on nothing more than the false evidence of criminal Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson) who was offered a commutation of his sentence for furnishing trumped-up details relating to McMillan’s complicity in the murder.

McMillan was sent to death row even before his trial. No people of colour were allowed on the jury. His case was representative of many others that took place around this time. As an after-note to this very impressive film informs us, one in nine black people executed in the States is later found to be innocent.

Rookie civil rights defence attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) takes up McMillan’s case. In the process he falls prey to the same humiliation and harassment that caused McMillan to be convicted. I won’t reveal the final verdict is as that would spoil it for you.

Notwithstanding the film’s noble intentions, it has the faults of many issue-driven works. The characters are standard issue – Stevenson the crusader, McMillan the victim, etc. The villains are also mainly cardboard. And Brie Larson, who was so good in Cretton’s earlier Short Term 12,  is totally wasted as Stevenson’s assistant.

Where it wins out is in the passion with which director/co-screenwriter Destin Daniel Cretton imbues his scenarios. Also there are individual traits in the secondary characters, like the twitchy demeanour of Myers, a man more confused than evil as a result of a dysfunctional past, or the quiet panic of a very gentle death row inmate, Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan). His crime was committed as a result of the post traumatic stress disorder he underwent after a spell in Vietnam.


Richardson’s callous execution galvanises Stevenson to secure a re-trial for McMillan. This is the most harrowing scene in the film but also, paradoxically, the most moving one. McMillan’s advice to Richardson to breathe deeply before he’s electrocuted seems to give him peace. So does the inspirational music he asks to be played at the execution, and even the ritualistic rattling of tin cans on the cell bars of his fellow inmates, with whom he’s formed strong bonds.

The film isn’t wildly original in theme or tone, as I say, but it’s a cautionary reminder of how deeply entrenched racism is within many Southern states like Alabama and Delaware, reaching from the police force to the legal profession and even the judiciary. Neither does Cretton ever let go of his grip on our emotions and he never becomes saccharine or preachy.

When all is said and done, it’s important to remember that whatever Stevenson achieved, and he achieved a lot, this systemic corruption is ongoing and unlikely to be solved any day soon no matter how many idealists pummel away at a mindset that is in so many respects rotten to the core.


Very Good