If you have been following the many Black Lives Matter posts circulating through social media, you will have come across many resources for anti-racism and anti-racist education. People have been compiling lists of books, shows, podcasts, and movies. This helps others work on their own education surrounding the history of race and institutional racism in this country. One of the movies on many of these lists is thee 2019 film Just Mercy, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton.
Based on the Book
The film is based off the book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. The book follows Stevenson’s experiences defending prisoners on death row. While the film doesn’t include everything in the book, it tells the true story of Walter McMillian. McMillian is one of the prisoners that Stevenson defended. It is the case he writes about in most detail in the book.
Bryan Stevenson graduated from Harvard law and moved to Alabama after graduation. He, along with Eva Ansley, founded the Equal Justice Initiative. The EJI is a non-profit organization based in Montgomery, Alabama. It provides legal representation to prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted, who cannot afford effective representation, or have otherwise been denied a fair trial. These defendants are overwhelmingly black.
The Striking Truth
The film Just Mercy provides a striking snapshot of the Deep South. It shows the way our criminal justice system has failed people of color, poor people, and in general the most vulnerable of our society. It exemplifies the way that testimonies are twisted and coerced and innocent people are wrongly convicted. Above all, it shows the power that all-white authorities hold over black people in places like Monroeville, Alabama (where the film takes place). In these places, there is little to no accountability for local prosecutors, police, sheriffs, and judges.
Just Mercy also exhibits the horrific details of capital punishment, ie the death penalty. The film allows the viewer to sympathize with the prisoners on death row and acknowledge their humanity. It also makes us confront the gruesome reality of killing human beings. Just Mercy shows us the helplessness and hopelessness of a death sentence. The justice system often makes mistakes, sometimes on purpose, and puts innocent people on death row.
The film follows Stevenson and McMillian through the legal process of appealing McMillian’s conviction and sentence. It is easy to understand for anyone not familiar with the legal justice system. If you have not read the book, you will be holding your breath at every turn.
Engaging and Educational
It is one thing to see data and statistics and read reports about the institutional racism in this country. It is entirely another to watch it with your own eyes, through an entire legal process, from beginning to end. Just Mercy combines education with art, teaching the audience about the criminal justice system and the inequalities that still prevail within it, all while pulling you in and keeping you engaged. The fact that it is a true story makes it all the more powerful.
When I read the book in summer of 2018, it changed my life. It propelled me to take a class about the death penalty, become more educated, and put me on the path I am on today: highly considering law school and writing a senior thesis about death penalty and prison abolition. Now they made it into a movie, it is all the more accessible to a wide audience who may not pick up the book. I would highly encourage everybody to watch Just Mercy as soon as they get the chance—and in honor of Black History Month and the current BLM protests, it is streaming FREE for all of June!!
Note: By no fault of the author, this article was posted after the June free streaming period, but the official site for the film, https://www.justmercyfilm.com lists all of the digital streaming platforms where it can be accessed and some come with free 30-day trials.