“Not much has changed.” These were my 80-year-old grandmother’s first words after watching Just Mercy starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and Brie Larson.
The film is based on the real life events of Walter McMillian, who was wrongfully convicted of murdering an 18-year-old white woman. The eye witness testimony of 20+ people at a cookout, the acknowledgment of insufficient evidence, and the correction of falsified testimony was not enough to convince the White Powers That Be, nor the courts, of this man’s innocence.
Brie Larson plays Eva Ansley, the assistant who works for Bryan Stevenson, a Black Harvard Law graduate who has moved to Alabama in order to start the Equal Justice Initiative. This is an organization that “works to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and racial inequality.”
This film properly depicts the struggle Black people faced in the South, as well as displays the damage and harm we befall while living in a society so racist that it eagerly turns a blind eye to injustice and the abuse of power. This blatant apathy, willful ignorance, and avid opposition exists simply because those affected by these injustices don’t share the same lack of pigment.
“In for a penny, in for a pound” is the phrase that comes to mind when watching these men of the law knowingly condemn a man of color and then do everything in their power to maintain the lie. They don’t see their job as protecting all citizens, but as serving and protecting the white community to keep them and theirs at ease.
Michael B. Jordan’s portrayal of Bryan Stevenson is immaculate. He embodies a phrase heard by most black children growing up: “You have to be twice as good to be considered equal.”
Here is a young Harvard graduate full of youth, love, determination, and compassion who is made to feel unwelcome and unheard. His validity was made unseen, and even his humanity was stripped from him by white men just because they could. He shows the difficulty of fighting against a system built to discredit people who look like him, as well as the strength and poise we must have when dealing with people in power who spit in our face and abuse us just because they can.
He shows a version of black people that still exists in today’s workforce. The version that needs to bite their tongue, to grin and bear it. The version that white people see the face of everyday but who still invalidate the induced turmoil underneath.
Presumed guilty simply for having black skin, Jamie Foxx had to tap into that reservoir of pain and truth as well as many other melanin-specific pools to play Walter McMillian. Wrongfully imprisoned on death-row, he is a man resigned to a reality he has no control over and no faith in.
However, with the next generation comes new hope. His character becomes revitalized, and soon after, hopeful. But that hope doesn’t blind him to the truth of being a black man in the racist South: “They trying to kill me in here. What’s to stop them from killing me out there?”
Many movies make the mistake of turning a film about what it is to be black (at any point) in this nation’s history and turn it into a white savior, feel-good film. In layman’s terms, Hollywood is continuously guilty of making “not all white people”-style films. Just Mercy does not make that mistake; it does a beautiful job of keeping a white ally simply that: an ally. Larson is relevant, able-bodied and present in a supportive role.
Another strength this movie has is that it shares many parallels with what it is like for people of color now, in present-day America. We are still often seen as guilty, threatening, and hostile by virtue of our pigment.
These stereotypes are perpetuated in everyday media and seemingly viewed as fact for law enforcement. This movie shows that these racist practices have been a part of America for a long time, and the fact that parallels can still be made shows we have a long way to go as a nation.
Just Mercy is a powerful film that uplifts and simultaneously shows that just how far we’ve come isn’t that far at all.