1987, Monroeville, Alabama. This is, fact fans, the town where Harper Lee was born and where she set “To Kill a Mockingbird”. A black man, Walter McMillan (Jamie Fox), has been working, chopping down trees, and is stopped by police. The office starts talking to him, at first calmly, friendlily. Then guns are drawn and he is arrested for the murder of an 18-year old woman.
There’s a slight problem – he has 11 witnesses who can place him somewhere else, but they are all black so their voices don’t count for much in the Alabama judicial system, presided over by a judge called Robert E Lee Key. There is only one person saying that he was at the scene. And he is a convicted felon with a fear of being burned alive who was placed on death row when his testimony was required, but taken off immediately after Walter is convicted.
Walter has a lawyer on his case. Bryan Stevenson (Michael B Jordan) is also black and from a humble background, but he’s also a sharp suited Harvard graduate. This counts for little in Monroeville, mind, as his car is still randomly stopped by the police, and, when he first tries to visit his client, he is forced to endure a humiliating strip search.
This is the story of an incredible miscarriage of justice in the USA’s recent history. It is a story of institutional racism, self-interested lawyers and a white community divided between those like Eva (Brie Larson) who put all their energies into supporting Bryan, and those who refuse premises for any organisation dealing with Death Row inmates, and send Eva racist threats for just trying to help.
There is also a subplot about another of Bryan’s clients, Herbert, a Vietnam Vet with PTSD who did kill someone, but was in no fit state when he did. For quite a while, I felt that the “Based on a true story” caption at the beginning of a film was a crude device aimed at winning our sympathy. But these things really did happen. This is a story which deserves to be told.
There are, however, a couple of big problems.
Firstly, you could tell by the trailer that this is a film with ambitions to win Oscars. Now this is not a bad thing of itself, even if it means one or two too many grandstanding court scenes, which probably didn’t happen like that in real life. More problematic is that it very soon stops being the story of the horrendous injustices and instead a hagiography of the great lawyer who righted the wrongs.
Now I’m sure that the real life Bryan Stevenson is a remarkable man, but the camera fixes itself so much on him that he obscures the immensity of the miscarriages of justice which he uncovered. These are real cases from very recent US history. The film should engender feelings of outrage. Yet for most of the time we are just gazing at Bryan.
Secondly, there are too many cardboard villains. At one stage, a sheriff bangs on about Harvard lawyers from Up North who come to Alabama with all sorts of preconceptions about how all Southerners are racists. I had real hope that this was a prelude to some sort of nuanced look which differentiated between the undeniable institutional racism and the more complicated feeling of exclusion felt by poor whites, which can provoke racism, but is much more ambiguous.
And yet the next scene is of a black man whose car is pulled up yet again by the police. Now I’m not saying that this sort of thing doesn’t happen – far from it. But surely some of the motivation for the film must have been to call out injustice and to get people to do something about it. And yet the main racist baddies are just so incredibly one-dimensionally evil, that almost anyone can watch the film and see this as being someone else’s problem.
The character of Eva is woefully underused (a female character who has few lines in a Hollywood film? Who’d have thought it?) and there is an interesting potential plotline here to explain how a white woman who grew up in a similar environment drew quite different conclusions to the hard and soft racists. But that would get in the way of the Big Men putting the world to rights on our behalf, so it never appears.
And this is my third problem with the film. One of the final scenes has Bryan saying that if we just have belief and commitment, each last one of us can make things better. And yet what the film says and what it does stand in contradiction to each other. Almost all the minor characters are inarticulate and disfigured – from the PTSD-riddled vet to the “white trash” crim who perjured himself to help send Walter down.
It is only when the lawyer with a suit and smart patter arrives that any change seems to actually happen. What this means is that rather than make us feel empowered to change the world, we are left in mute awe of the Great Man who is just much better at this sort of stuff than we could ever be. Whatever its good intentions, the film ends up disarming us.
Nonetheless, Just Mercy tells an important story, that still isn’t really over (the end credits tell us that the county sheriff was reelected 5 times after this scandal came to light). And yet it is ponderous and at over two hours is way too long, especially as we kind of know everything that’s going to happen from the get go. This was a story which needed to be told – its just a shame it wasn’t told by a director with a little more flair.