New film, Just Mercy, brings humanity to death row
When Bryan Stevenson arrives in Monroeville, Alabama to found the Equal Justice Initiative, he’s reminded that he should pay a visit to the To Kill A Mockingbird Museum. There, the District Attorney’s secretary tells Stevenson: “You can stand right where Atticus Finch once stood.”
The irony of Monroeville’s pride—showcased in the new film, Just Mercy—in being home to “one of the great civil rights landmarks of the South” is made clear from the moment the film starts, as Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian finds himself arrested, convicted, and placed on death row for a crime he insists he could not have committed.
Jamie Foxx is deeply moving as Johnny D., who, by the time of Stevenson’s arrival, has resigned himself to his life on death row. Multiple attorneys have come and gone, often taking the family’s money with them. They made the same promises to him that the quietly earnest Stevenson (portrayed by Michael B. Jordan) brings: “Whatever you did,” Stevenson tells McMillian, “your life is still meaningful, and I’m going to do everything I can to keep them from taking it.”
Despite McMillian’s unwillingness to consider the possibility of freedom, Stevenson takes up his case and that of a few of the other inmates on Johnny D.’s death row. He pays a visit to the McMillian family, and when he finds himself surrounded by cousins, children, and neighbors, it’s clear that at stake is not only an inmate’s innocence, but the life of a family, and of an entire community. “We feel like they put us all on death row too,” Johnny D.’s daughter informs Stevenson.
It’s only after Stevenson visits McMillian’s familyーat a small home crowded with neighbors, children, and others who provide alibis for Johnny D.ーthat he’s willing to give an appeal another chance and as the film unfolds, the evidence convicting Johnny D. crumbles. In the appeal and retrial that follows, Just Mercy takes on a very procedural tone, but it remains propelled by its moving reflections on liberty, justice, and what it might mean to demand both for all. “Your job isn’t to defend a conviction,” Bryan Stevenson tells the intractable District Attorney, “it’s to achieve justice.”
The devastation of Just Mercyーand its humanityーcomes during the starkly lit scenes on death row. Without them, the film very well might have become a tired courtroom drama. But there, in this most unlikely of settings, Johnny D. and his fellow inmates have built a community of their own. As one inmate, Herb, faces an impending execution, it’s McMillian and the others that attempt to bring him peace. The sound inmates banging metal dishes against prison bars as Herb is marched to the execution chamber ring in the ears of those who see this film. “You’re not alone,” the ringing metal seems to reminds Herb as he prepares for death: “you deserve to live, and you are known.”
There is no humanity in what is done to Herbert Richardson. Though he does not deny his guilt, the PTSD-stricken Vietnam veteran’s remorse, terror, and grief as he is shaved and strapped into an electric chair deftly conveys the heavy injustice, inhumanity, and grief of his execution.
It might be easy to denounce any of the racism that assumed Johnny D.’s guilt, but it could be more difficult to recognize the human peopleーinnocent or rightly convictedーthat sit alongside him on death row. They are human people who hunger for justice and long for freedom. They have families; they crack jokes; they tell stories. Even those who have chosen evil have an irrevocable claim to their human dignity. As we look at these convicts in the eyes, we are asked to see the trauma imposed on those sentenced to death. We, too, are asked to denounce the injustice of the taking of any human life.
Who deserves mercy? That is not a question we get to decide. A punishment that makes that choice, a punishment that removes any possibility of redemption, any option for unasked mercy, cannot be justice; justice without mercy is not just. As Stevenson remarks at the conclusion of the film (and in his book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption): “It’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, andーperhapsーwe all need some measure of unmerited grace.” To accept the argument that Stevenson and director Destin Daniel Cretton make in Just Mercy is to accept the possibility of a measure of unmerited grace.
In the silence of a forest outside of Monroeville, Alabama, Walter McMillian breathed in freedom. For years, he would breathe in the stale air of death row, with only that memory to remind him of the truth of his innocence. As his story is told, opened up, and shared, we are invited to breathe in that freedom with him. It’s a freedom whose value is not known fully until it is lost, and one that he could never fully reclaim after it was taken from him. But if we enter into his story, perhaps we can learn that it is a freedom worth fighting for.
Maggie Garnett is a sophomore studying theology with minors in Constitutional Studies and ESS. To support her efforts to single-handedly keep the South Bend movie theaters in business, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.