Monday, December 23, 2019

Movie with Abe: Just Mercy

Just Mercy
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Released December 25, 2019

There is an understandable gravity that comes with a death sentence, mainly because, unlike a life spent in prison with or without the technically-granted possibility of parole, the result is finite and irreversible. Yet many prisoners convicted to death have spent or are currently spending an extraordinary amount of time on death row, waiting and hoping that their execution date will never be set. Those in that situation may debate whether it is still a life that they are living in anticipation of a mandated death, but they may also hold out hope for a last-minute stay or, even more impactfully, that someone will come along and help them get their conviction overturned.

Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) grows up in Delaware and is tremendously affected by a visit with a death row inmate while an intern during law school. He decides to open his own firm, The Equal Justice Initiative, in Montgomery, Alabama with a local operations director, Eva Ansley (Brie Larson). On his first visit to the local prison, Bryan is strip-searched by a racist guard, acclimating him to the prevailing culture of the area. He encounters more harassment from the police and members of the community as he seeks to open up a wound that he believes has sent an innocent man to death row: Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), better known as Johnny D., who was convicted of killing a white woman at a dry cleaners based solely on the testimony of a white felon. Though Walter is initially closed off to Bryan’s offer of help, he quickly sees that Bryan will not soon give up when he perceives injustice.

This film joins many others before it in unmasking the systemic racism in place in the South in the United States, representing a tremendous culture shock for Bryan, whose idealistic nature faces multiple setbacks when confronted by law enforcement officials and judges uninterested in reviewing evidence that might contradict their previously-set expectations of what people are capable of based on how they look. It’s easy to become infuriated as a viewer, and Johnny D’s calm, detached demeanor demonstrates just how disillusioned he has already become with his fate. Bryan, not accustomed to it and not ready to accept it, becomes a force for change since nothing is going to stop him from fighting for the rights of others, particularly those with absolutely no power themselves.

A few cases are addressed in this film, but Johnny D’s takes center stage, laying out its discoveries and turns in a relatively straightforward cinematic fashion. Jordan and Larson are both well-known performers who clearly have a passion for this project, and they play their parts suitably enough. It’s Oscar winner Foxx, whose roles haven’t been plentiful or fantastic since his banner year in 2004 with “Ray” and “Collateral,” who truly impresses with a sympathetic portrayal of Johnny D. This film is upsetting and inspiring, doing exactly what it’s supposed to do: showcase injustice and advocate for further change.


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