We are more than the worst thing we have ever done.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
I’m just going to come right out and say it. Just Mercyis one of – if not the – most emotionally moving piece of cinema I have ever seen.
I am already a fan of Destin Daniel Cretton; his 2017 film The Glass Castlealready resides in my top three favorite movies of all time, probably because it hits pretty close to home. However, Just Mercy, his latest directorial project is a story about an innocent black man who sits on death row, ominously awaiting the terrible day that approaches. This story cannot possibly hit home because of the privilege my skin color provides me. But it moved me in every way possible. I was angry, enraged, frustrated, joyed, and deeply questioning right and wrong. I bawled on my couch - I bawled twice actually. And beyond the strong emotional reactions, I was physically affected and moved by this film. I don’t even know how to begin praising it.
Based on a true story, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B Jordan) is a Harvard lawyer who takes on an summer internship meeting prisoners from death row where he gets to know them and their stories. Unlike many other times that I’ve seen the strong willed, arrogant, intimidating lawyer trope (like Annalise Keating from How to Get Away with Murder, for example), Stevenson is approachable. He’s still a student, and Jordan flawlessly portrays this character’s arc as a young lawyer – wide eyed, hopeful, disappointed by the system, yet confident in himself. Jordan approaches each client as a real human rather than just another case that he can win for himself and his own success as an attorney.
The plot gets rolling when Bryan meets Johnnie D, a hardworking lumberjack who was accused of a crime he says he didn’t commit. Johnnie D is skeptical of Stevenson at first, let down by lawyers talking high game in the past, promising to get them out. Bryan makes every effort to be understanding, and goes to visit Johnnie’s family two hours away to learn more about him and his case. He finds more information from others proving Johnnie’s innocence, but he continues to run into obstacles. The men who could prove Johnnie’s innocence are reluctant to speak up, out of fear of the men in power. The entire criminal justice system runs on fear.
Bryan doesn’t quit. He continues to fight for Johnnie, and after a series of unfortunate and unfair circumstances Johnnie is finally proven innocent and walks free. The tension throughout the story – the one step forward and two steps back kind of effort it took to get to this outcome – left me in tears when the judge stated that he could walk free. A man who was to die can finally go back to chopping trees, to hugging his children, driving his car, and all of the other simple pleasures of life.
While Johnnie’s story ends happily, the film makes it clear that others’ stories don’t. I not only cried at the end of the movie for Johnnie, but also at the midpoint of the movie. I shed violent tears as Herb went and sat on the electric chair. I was physically so uncomfortable that I felt physically paralyzed, knowing that although this man is not innocent, his life is still meaningful. Herb, a Vietnam war veteran, was the only fighter to survive a particular bombing. Afterwards, he attempted suicide and had other alarming symptoms of PTSD. Creating a bomb and putting it under a woman’s porch landed him in one of the cold, white, lonely cells on death row.
What struck me is that someone who was so close to dying as an American hero died as a criminal on death row. That same person who took that huge risk – surviving traumatic events that none of us would ever wish upon anyone – died in an electric chair. This scene is summed up with Stevenson’s quote at the end of the film, “Each one of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.”
We cannot all do what Stevenson has done for the criminal justice system, but we CAN do something. It starts with voting the right people into office, so that men like Stevenson don’t have to get past the barrier of racism in their trials. It starts with educating ourselves on the long standing issue of racism, mass incarceration, and the history of police brutality against black people. Despite what some ignorant white people think, racism isstill a pertinent and systemic issue in this country. This white ignorance is highlighted in the scene where Crampton tells Stevenson he should check out the To Kill a Mockingbird Museum in town because it is an important symbol of the civil rights movement.
This story’s setting in the same city that To Kill A Mockingbird was written struck me as a creator. It’s one thing to put the story out there, but putting the story out there is not the end of the fight. Although most in the town probably read Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, racism still runs rampant, showing that the fight is not over until action is taken. Watching this movie is not the end of the fight. The fight ends when all people of this country are seen as equally important to protect.
I could sit here all day long and praise the acting of Jamie Foxx, Michael Jordan, and Brie Larson – who, by the way, exemplifies what it looks like to be a white ally. I could sit here and praise the music choices. I could praise the editing speed for accurately building tension where necessary. I could praise the set design. But this movie’s biggest strength is the story itself, and that leaves me with one question. Why did it take until 2019 for this story to be told?