Several years ago I read attorney Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy: A Story of Redemption and Justice. It resonated deeply with me. I grew up just outside Montgomery, Alabama, the place where, in 1989, Stevenson formed the Equal Justice Initiative, a resource center and death penalty defense organization. But it wasn’t just the common geography that drew me in; it was also the book’s longing for justice and the echoes of the gospel.
Just Mercy (rated PG-13), the new film starring Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson, was adapted from the aforementioned book. This true story faithfully recounts Stevenson’s representation of death row inmates while focusing particularly on his work with Walter McMillian (played by Jamie Foxx).
A mission of justice
The film begins with McMillian getting pulled over by the police and arrested for the murder of an 18-year-old white girl. Stevenson soon visits McMillian in prison, expressing a desire to represent him, but all McMillian can see is another lawyer making promises he can’t keep and going up against a system set up to destroy the black man. Stevenson tries to offer confidence and hope, saying, “Your life is still meaningful.” McMillian can only reply, “You don’t know what you’re into down here, when you’re guilty from the moment you’re born.”
The murder took place in Monroeville, Alabama, in 1986, and that fact is not lost on the filmmakers. Monroeville is the home of author Harper Lee. When Stevenson initially goes to visit Monroeville, the prosecuting attorney proudly encourages him to check out the “Mockingbird Museum” before he leaves. “One of the great Civil Rights landmarks of the South,” he says sincerely, without a hint of irony.
Stevenson is a Harvard-educated lawyer from Delaware, who is African-American. When he arrives in the Deep South, he experiences racism ranging from microaggression to humiliation to dangerous threats. But he is undeterred in his quest to find justice, particularly when he reviews McMillian’s case and notices many inconsistencies as well as the thin evidence used to convict him. Once McMillian finds out Stevenson has visited his family and friends (which is more than other attorneys had previously done for him), he’s all in—ready to hope, and ready to fight. And so begins their beautiful relationship and long journey together.
The mystery of how justice and mercy can co-exist in a single scenario is never better seen than in the cross of Jesus Christ.
Just Mercy is a wonderful film, but it is not perfect. Too often movies like this rely less on nuance and more on broad strokes. For instance, almost every white character in the South is painted as a racist. Stevenson himself often comes across as near-perfect. Despite these critiques, the story is well told. I particularly appreciated director Destin Daniel Cretton’s insistence on using closeups. Many conversation scenes, particularly those in prison, push in so close to the actors’ faces, we can’t help but feel the claustrophobia of the setting. We wait for the scene to end so that, perhaps, we can get to a wide shot and take a breath. And his use of choirs, hymns, and old spirituals is an intermittent reminder of the spirituality inherent in the characters’ desire for justice.
The greatest picture of just mercy
When asked in a 2011 interview for his definition of justice, Stevenson responded first by talking about injustice and the way it is seen when people don’t “protect the norms, the values, the goals, the aspirations of the entire community.” He went on to say:
When you can identify injustice, when you can identify inequality and unfairness, and you confront that, then in my mind you are doing justice. You are doing something corrective to the abuse of power that is at the heart of injustice, to the bigotry and bias that is often at the heart of injustice. So in a lot of ways, identifying injustice, confronting it and challenging it is what justice is about.
This mission of challenging injustice is encapsulated in the words of Jesus from Luke 4:18-19 as he began his earthly ministry to inaugurate the Kingdom of God:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
In these words and in the life and death of the One who spoke them, we see the greatest picture of “just mercy”—the coming together of seemingly opposite ideas. With Stevenson’s Christian upbringing, he must know something of this supposed paradox. The mystery of how justice and mercy can co-exist in a single scenario is never better seen than in the cross of Jesus Christ. He experienced God’s just wrath against sin that we deserved, and because of that, we have the opportunity to experience his mercy by placing our hope and faith in him.
The film ends with Stevenson giving a speech on justice and poverty. It’s a fitting conclusion to the movie and a beautiful mantra for each of us: “We all need justice. We all need mercy. And some measure of unmerited grace.”