The prisons of Alabama serve as a backdrop for the regaling of a true story about racial tensions, injustice, and the death penalty in the newly released film Just Mercy. 

PLNU’s own Destin Daniel Cretton (01) directed the movie and Joel P. West (06) composed the musical score. The Point Loma alumni, along with their all-star cast and crew that include Brie Larson, Jamie Foxx, Michael B. Jordan, and Tim Blake Nelson were able to develop a compelling story which centers on the way racial disparity is affecting the lives of African Americans who do not have the means to fight back against the convictions they are receiving, regardless of their innocence or guilt. The movie is an adaptation of a nonfiction book by the same name written by Equal Justice Initiative founder, Bryan Stevenson. 

This movie is based on Bryan Stevenson’s retelling of true events.

In Just Mercy, Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan, moves to Alabama after graduating from Harvard Law School to defend those who do not have the means to be properly represented in court. He believes, “Each of us is more than the worst thing that we’ve ever done” and this acts as the foundation for his work. Stevenson sets his sights on providing legal representation to prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted of crimes, poor prisoners without effective representation, and others who plainly were denied a fair trial.

Stevenson’s journey to find equality for incarcerated individuals who have all but been forgotten about by the justice system which was supposed to protect them connects him with Walter McMillian, played by Jamie Foxx. McMillian, also known as Johnny D, is a man who has been charged with the death penalty for the murder of a young white woman though the conviction holds up less and less as Stevenson searches for the truth. 

Foxx and Jordan in a prison visiting room.
McMillian (played by Jaime Foxx, left) was sentenced to death in a trial that only lasted a day and a half.

Cretton and the real-life Stevenson collaborated throughout the creation of this motion picture to bring a sense of humanity and truth to the stories that were being told. There is an emotional weight to so much of what is happening as the audience is taken into the lives of each character so that they can better understand the impact the death penalty verdict has not only on an innocent man, but on his entire community. 

This story is filled with tragedy and despair but it also maintains a sense of hope and courage, as the pursuit of what is right starts to restore the faith these oppressed communities have in one another and in the idea that they deserve more than what those in power are giving them. 

“We all need justice. We all need mercy. And perhaps we need some measure of unmerited grace.” 

Stevenson faces a fair share of racist threats and prejudice during his time as McMillian’s lawyer as the rest of the town tries to sustain the belief that the murderer is already behind bars despite everything that points to the contrary. He refuses to give up on his convictions and continues to champion for his client. Joel P. West said that while working on the movie’s soundtrack, “ It started with a deep dive into the musical world of Bryan Stevenson, who is a musician himself … The ugly truths he is working to correct are overwhelming and hard to stomach, and ultimately we were trying to develop score music that might bring some of the same dignity, hope and beauty that Bryan brings to people stuck in those shadows.” 

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When Cretton took the stage at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto for the world premiere of Just Mercy, he explained how it is hard to think about the world he is leaving for his son with all the disparity we see from day to day but explains that Stevenson’s story is one which “gives me incredible hope for the future of our world, not only for the work that he has done, but for the spirit he represents.”

Cretton worked closely with Stevenson while directing this film to bring his story to life.

“Your life is still meaningful and I’m going to do everything possible to keep them from taking it,” Stevenson tells McMillian. Up until the retrial, in 1986, there had never been a death penalty case overturned in Alabama. It is easy for us to watch such a tragic history unfold and assume that it is all a part of the past but Just Mercy brings to light how these instances of discrimination are still occurring and, as this narrative teaches us, is costing people their lives. This film speaks to an inequality which has the power to destroy communities but it also shows the strength which remains in perseverance and faith.

All photos are sourced from IMDb.

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Micah Renner is a writer with a passion for helping people tell their stories.