Just Mercy

Reviewed by Rakesh Nambiar (Ph.D.), Assist. Prof. (English), Kirit P. Mehta School of Law, Mumbai

Bryan, a Harvard law intern is sent to meet a death row convict informing him of a postponement. The convict lives another day and bonds with the intern. Right at this moment, the convict is shockingly handled by a white guard – reminiscent of the George Floyd episode. Racial violence is introduced pretty soon here. This biographical legal drama, set in 1989, directed by Destin Cretton in 2019 starring Michael Jordan (no! not the basketball star), Brie Larson and Jamie Foxx, received positive reviews and good box-office collections. Jordan pulls off his character as a puzzled-yet-resolute young lawyer, on-reel, though he looks too old to play Bryan Stevenson, the man who did this for real.

Bryan decides to offer legal aid to the poor in Alabama after his graduation. His mother is upset knowing fully well where he is leading and that she may not see him again. The next scene shows Bryan’s trip to Alabama with a Lynyrd Skynyrd Southern rock as background score “Sweet Home Alabama”, culturally boasting racial harmony and a poster of town’s fame – Harper Lee’s text To Kill a Mockingbird, hiding its tainted history. Jordon does a good job playing a befuddled “agent of change” shockingly deprived of any agency to help. His trial begins when he decides to meet death row inmates. Upon entering the prison, he is asked to strip naked and spread his legs, despite the rules. Why? What do you get from it? His moist eyes ask, so do we. At this time, we give up on any hope of law beyond rule books, but not Bryan. He meets the convicts one by one, and all except Walter, played by Jamie Foxx, open up to him. He is not the only lawyer, they say, who gave them hope. Walter, however, has lost hope from the Alabama justice system.

Bryan, unlike Atticus Finch, is not white, but merely equipped with ideals, a Harvard degree, and a partner – Eva Ansley, coordinating for his Equal Justice Initiative. Brie is given a short supporting role as Eva, enacted too stiffly. This initiative has upset the Alabama narrative. Both Bryan and Eva receive threats and get shadowed. The unseen becomes apparent – white people and privilege. The question is not just about race but a predatory social system affirmed by the community.

A system that wrestles down any attempt to discover or argue the truth. It targets the body as the site of truth to be tortured down till the tongue rises to confess a lie implicating a black man. Ralph, a convicted white felon, gets a taste of torture to implicate Walter in Ronda Morrison’s murder. The killer of the white woman is out there somewhere and the case remains unsolved. Who is to blame? Walter, of course, he is a perfect victim of power, hate and lacks agency of representation. But he can rejoice because he is not alone; others too are pushed towards death row. And it is just a matter of time for the state apparatus to seek cold retribution from blacks. His cellmate’s pre-trial plea is rejected and is electrocuted. Who’s next?

Lee’s text is resurrected in the film giving a metaphoric parallel – Tom Robinson and Walter McMillian – both rumoured to be in love with a white woman, earns the ire of the white community and justice system. Likewise, the black women are shown in collectives, grieving at the misfortune of their men and black identity. Their solidarity ironically captures the pathos of abandoning any hope of justice in Alabama. Exclusion is deeply entrenched in the Alabama justice system. Walter’s family, Ralph and all the poor victims connected with the case poignantly speak through fearful gazes escaping the truth. Law is constituted asymmetrically for blacks: testimony, eye-witness and evidence is given only by the whites are recorded. The textbook case of a system conspiring to imprison its fears – an identity with colour. Fear is the invisible yet apparent narrative here. The courts and establishment populated with white community siding with a “black-therefore-criminal” psychosis expose deep fracture in communal harmony.

Criminal intimidation is normalized and modern power structures have antecedents with the past. The poor victims living as slaves have no recourse to emancipation, but the mercy of the powerful and morally upright. Mercy seasons justice, Shakespeare would say, as it droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven. Should justice be discharged only by the merciful? One needs to follow the law to discharge justice because equitable justice is mercy. These discourses are not provinces of the poor, but the educated. Hence it becomes our responsibility to verify truths, stand against unjust power structures and denaturalize feudal subjugation. The film exposes hard truths that one must dare watch to prevent denial of systemic oppression and gain intuitive clues to be cognitive of oppressive systems anywhere around us. Emancipation is not just to fight biased narratives but investigate and embrace truths that question our confirmation biases.

For the poor – what are they asking – nothing, just mercy!

Bryan withstood the cruel system, shouldered his responsibility towards the community and co-opted others in his fight. Knowing fully well that he cannot win this fight alone, he came on television and marshalled Walter’s case. A subtle clue by the filmmaker – expose what they are trying to hide.

This spectacular bio-drama, another addition to the list of the fighting-all-odds-and-holding-on-till-the-end narrative is available on Amazon Prime.

Disclaimer: The author is not holding any shares of Amazon 😉

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Kirit P. Mehta School of Law Publications