The Screen Scene: Just Mercy

The Screen Scene with Scott Phillips

Walter McMillan was a pulpwood worker who lived in Monroeville, Alabama. In 1986, Walter was accused of killing a young white woman in broad daylight while she worked her shift at a local dry cleaners.

Dozens of friends and relatives testified that Walter was at a family fish fry at the time of the murder. One white convicted felon testified that he saw Walter commit the murder. Walter was convicted by a jury. They recommended life in prison, but the judge overruled their recommendation and sentenced Walter to die by electrocution.

Just Mercy, the new film from writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton, picks up the story of Walter McMillan several years after his conviction. A young attorney named Bryan Stevenson opens the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery and begins reviewing the case files of everyone serving time on Death Row in the State of Alabama.

From that audit, he zeroes in on a number of convictions that seem to be based on questionable evidence. Walter McMillan was one of those cases.

I don’t consider discussing the details of this case to be a spoiler. Depending on where you grew up in the WRBL viewing area, this may be well-known local history to you. We also know they don’t make big Hollywood films about crusading lawyers who fail to free their clients from Death Row.

Just Mercy is not a suspense film in the traditional sense. It’s a film about perseverance, about believing in a cause despite the fact that the entire world seems to be against you.

The foundation of the film is the performances of Jamie Foxx as Walter McMillan and Michael B. Jordan as the young Bryan Stevenson. There’s something about playing historical figures that seems to agree with Foxx. As the condemned man, he gives his best performance since winning an Oscar in 2004 for his portrayal of Ray Charles.

Michael B. Jordan proves that he’s as comfortable in a suit as he is in boxing trunks. He’s as credible as an attorney as he was as an athlete in the Creed films from the Rocky franchise.

Just Mercy turns a stern eye on institutional racism and the tendency for innocent people of color to be convicted of crimes they did not commit. In 1986, I was attending Auburn High School and about 150 miles down the road from my school, Walter McMillan was being convicted of a murder he literally couldn’t have committed. His busload of black witnesses carried less credibility in a courtroom than the word of a white career criminal.

Just Mercy doesn’t preach to its audience. It simply shows us the irrefutable facts and allows us to draw our own inevitable conclusions. The film opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, January 10th.

I give it 4 out of 5 popcorn buckets.

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