The shocking thing about this story is that it happened a little over thirty years ago, probably right before some of us were born. And the even more astonishing part is that some aspects of this story are still true today.
Just Mercy became highly popular in June 2020 when Fox Entertainment made it free to the public as part of a growing awareness of social injustice and racism. I, along with others, watched it as a way to better understand racism. Succinctly put, this movie will open your eyes if they are closed like mine were.
This film follows the story of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a true-life lawyer who formed the Equal Justice Initiative in 1989 in his quest to bring justice to inmates on Alabama’s Death Row. Soon after he began the organization, he met Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a Black American falsely accused of killing a White woman in 1987 and sentenced to Death Row. Unlike some of the other inmates who wanted a lawyer, McMillian had lost hope that the truth would be revealed. The incomplete records of McMillian’s trial intrigued Stevenson, which led him to further research his case.
As the plot unfolded, questionable facts about McMillian’s trial came to light. Although all the evidence contradicted itself and the only witness changed his testimony after being bullied by the sheriff’s department, the nearly-all White jury found Walter McMillian guilty, and the judge sentenced him to execution.
They sentenced him based on the evidence of their racism alone.
In one of his sessions with Stevenson, McMillian states, “You don’t know what it’s like down here. When you’re guilty from the moment you’re born.”1 Maybe we, with our Swiss-German background, don’t know what it’s like either.
The story follows the lives of the other inmates with Walter McMillian, including Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), convicted for thirty years on Death Row for a crime he did not commit.2 The film also shows the execution of Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) and talks about the failure of Alabama to provide sufficient legal counsel on his behalf.3 Richardson suffered from PTSD from his years serving as a soldier, yet the court and judge did not consider his mental illness when deciding his fate. The friendship of these three men is often highlighted throughout this film.
Stevenson and McMillian appeal for a retrial with the hope that the evidence will now be properly considered. McMillian’s family shares their eyewitness testimony with Stevenson, although some of them do not testify on their behalf because of the consequences it would bring to them. It seemed like some were afraid to let the truth shine. The movie ends with the final decision by the judge. It is sobering to realize that one man had, and has, the ability to choose life or death for another man.
This movie is based on Bryan Stevenson’s book by the same title that shares the story of Walter McMillian, among others. That reality is what makes this story powerful.
Bryan Stevenson said in this film, “We can’t change the world with only ideas in our minds. We need conviction in our hearts”.4 When we have only head knowledge about an issue, we will not be able to convince others of its importance. For myself, this movie showed me a little bit more of what it is like to live under a constant suspicion from others, to live under the fear of authority.
Walter McMillian, when talking about his arrest said, “The day I got arrested, I thought I was going to be okay, because I got the truth… Then the police keep calling you a killer. Some white dude say he saw you do it. News people saying you did it…. After a while, you start wondering what [your friends and family] think about you. You start wondering what you think about you. Truth ain’t so clear anymore”.5
While containing Biblical values, this film is not told from a Christian perspective. Because of that, certain aspects of it are incompatible with the life of a believer. The main, and pretty much only, objection I have with this film is the use of strong language multiple times throughout the story. However, I believe the message of the movie is still worth hearing. Because of that, I would recommend watching it with filters on to block language (for example VidAngel). While I do not want people going against their conscience to see a movie, the message of this story still needs to be heard.
If you watch this film, involve yourself with the story. Imagine if you were Walter McMillian’s wife, still waiting after six years for her husband to come home, wondering if the retrial would actually make a difference this time. Imagine you were his son, who testified on his father’s behalf but whose testimony was overlooked because of his race.
To put it in the words of Bryan Stevenson, “If we can look at ourselves closely, and honestly, I believe we will see that we all need justice. We all need mercy. And perhaps, we all need some measure of unmerited grace”.6
Kristen Yoder currently lives in Elmhurst, Queens, NYC, one of the most ethnically diverse places on the earth. She is often involved in church activities and squeezes in college in her spare time, thanks to Lumerit Education. She enjoys reading mystery novels and missionary biographies and enthusiastically joins conversations about theology, cross-cultural missions, and personality types, to name a few.
- Hinton, Anthony Ray. The Sun Does Shine. I highly recommend this biography! His testimony of coming to know Jesus in the midst of such evil is incredible!
Photo Credit: https://www.justmercyfilm.com/images/gallery/img2.jpg