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Film / Just Mercy

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"I understand a lot of time has gone by, but I personally believe that it’s never too late for justice.”
Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy is a 2019 legal drama directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. The film is based on the true life case of Walter McMillian.

The film follows Harvard law graduate Bryan Stevenson, who moves to Alabama to defend those who were wrongly convicted or provided insufficient legal representation. Among his clients is Walter McMillian, a black man on death row for the murder of an 18-year-old white girl. After reading through McMillian's file, it becomes exceedingly obvious to Stevenson that the case against McMillian was utterly laughable and was fueled entirely by prejudice. From there, he makes an effort to reopen the case against McMillian and provide the man with justice, but is faced with heavy resistance from the locals.

The film stars Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson, Jamie Foxx as McMillian, and Brie Larson as Stevenson's partner Eva Ansley. Rafe Spall, Rob Morgan, O'Shea Jackson Jr., and Tim Blake Nelson also appear in the film.

This film contains examples of:

  • Alas, Poor Villain: The execution of Herbert Richardson is played for maximum sympathy despite him fully admitting his guilt, as it's clear that he doesn't really deserve it despite that.
  • Amoral Attorney:
    • Tommy Chapman, who knows damn well that McMillian's conviction was based on a mountain of lies (or at least tries to ignore the implications that it is) and yet he chooses to uphold it anyway.
    • McMillian's first lawyer is described as having squeezed every penny he could out of the family and then just abandoned the case, without making any obvious efforts into challenging the flaws in the case which Stevenson uncovers.
    • Multiple death row inmates talk about having public defenders who didn't care at all for their welfare or guilt or innocence and helped railroad them into prison.
  • Based on a True Story: Specifically on Stevenson's own memoir of the case.
  • Be All My Sins Remembered: Herbert owns up to the crime he committed and in spite of extenuating factors such as his mental illness, admits to feeling that he might deserve to die, something the other inmates try to talk him out of.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Tommy Chapman and Sheriff Tate.
  • Crusading Lawyer: Stevenson embodies this trope. He gets his degree from Harvard and could presumably be raking in the big bucks, but instead he chooses to represent death-row clients with little money and at some personal danger.
  • The Deep South: This being a small town in southern Alabama, it's about as Deep South as it gets. The sheriff lampshades this at one point by complaining about the stereotypes that they're all a bunch of racist hicks, though it's not like he does anything to dispel that impression. (The judge who sentences McMillian is also named Robert E. Lee Key, which is one of those details that would seem over the top if it weren't true.)
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Stevenson and McMillian both go through hell to get the justice McMillian deserves, with McMillian having to endure prison with the threat of execution hanging over him, and Stevenson facing intense hostility from the local community, particularly law enforcement.
  • Happy Place: McMillian has worked out a method of deep breaths and visualization that briefly takes him (and the audience) back to the pine forest where he used to live. He uses this to help a neighboring prisoner who's panicking at the thought of his execution.
  • Hate Sink: Quite a few examples throughout the film, as the town is teeming with bigots. Tommy Chapman (the prosecuting attorney) and Sheriff Tate are the most prominent examples throughout the film, both being vile scumbags who do everything they can to keep McMillian behind bars. Chapman at least does the right thing in the end; no such change of heart from the sheriff, though. There's also the two clearly racist cops who pull over Bryan without given anything in the way of a reason, all while searching his car and pointing a gun at his head.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Two dramatic ones.
    • Ralph Myers starts out unsympathetic, but we learn of his Dark and Troubled Past and how the authorities coerced his testimony. Eventually he does the right thing and recants his testimony.
    • Chapman, after being obdurate through the whole film, switches sides at the last minute.
    • The prison guard who strip searches Stevenson is troubled by Herbert's execution and shows signs of sympathy to Johnnie Dee as the movie goes on.
  • Heroic BSoD: Almost everyone reacts this way after the initial appeal is turned down, but especially poor Walter McMillian, who freaks out and has to be restrained when the guards take him back to his cell.
  • It's All About Me: Chapman is angered when the 60 Minutes segment causes him to be portrayed as a racist villain even though it's entirely accurate.
  • Kangaroo Court: Both McMillian's original trial and the initial appeal to have him re-tried are complete jokes. Despite the evidence against McMillian being almost comically weak, the court rules against him anyway.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • The real murderer of Ronda, who was never captured.
    • In real life, Sheriff Tate never faced legal charges over his actions and was even voted back into office for the next thirty years.
  • Last Request: On the day of his execution, Herbert Richardson is granted a few of these, including having a particular gospel song played as he's put into the electric chair. He comments that he's actually had more people asking him what he wants on that day than he ever has in his life.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: The black characters widely believe that McMillian first attracted police hostility by having an affair with a white woman. In real life, one of his sons was also married to a white woman, compounding this.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: An example based on a real life case. A cursory glance at the facts of the case make it plainly obvious that the case against McMillian is incredibly weak, and yet a culture of bigotry led to him being punished for someone else's heinous crime anyway.
  • Missing White Woman Syndrome: The murder of 18-year-old white girl Ronda Morrison puts so much pressure on the police that they brazenly frame an innocent man just to say that they've solved it. But as Stevenson points out, his own grandfather's murder hardly attracted that kind of attention.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Stevenson points out to Myers that he and the man he's helped to frame actually have a lot in common — more than he has in common with the white authorities who have abused them both.
  • Shameful Strip: When Stevenson first visits the prison to see his clients, the guards subject him to a strip search even though that's not supposed to be necessary for lawyers. You can see the rage building in his eyes as he takes his clothes off.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Herbert Richardson, another of Bryan's clients, came back from Vietnam with PTSD which eventually led him to bomb someone's house.
  • Slave to PR: Chapman is very mindful of what his community wants throughout the movie.
  • Token Good Teammate: Only one member of Tate's department gets a positive portrayal and Tate fired him for refusing to lie on the stand and trying to bring attention to contradictions in the prosecution's theory.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The film uses real-life footage at the end to show where the major characters ended up.