By John Hanlon
Just Mercy, the 2019 drama which was just released on Blu-Ray, has a keen sense of history. Although it’s set in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, the film’s sense of history expands beyond that as it raises serious questions about justice and honor.
Early on in the film, several characters talk about the To Kill a Mockingbird museum located in Monroeville, Alabama. These characters, who live in that area, urge lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) — a native of the Northeast — to visit the museum to understand more deeply the legacy of the book and Monroeville native Harper Lee, who penned the beloved novel.
Unfortunately for Stevenson, he doesn’t need to visit the museum to see the legacy of racism that Lee wrote about decades earlier.
Stevenson is a young lawyer who creates the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama and provides legal support for death row cases in Alabama. During his work providing legal support for minorities who have faced the justice system, he meets Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a prisoner on death row whose case is undeniably confounding. McMillian was charged with the murder of a young woman and the prosecution’s story for how the crime unfolded is packed with absurd conclusions. Despite McMillian’s alibi (and the witnesses that could testify to it) and a lack of hard evidence, he was convicted for murder.
The idealistic Stevenson takes on the case and starts to realize how impenetrable the justice system can be for black men who are accused of crimes.
Although some elements of the feature do feel familiar, director Destin Daniel Cretton strives to do something bigger than tell one man’s story. Written by Cretton and Andrew Lanham (and adapted from the book by Bryan Stevenson), the story hints at the legacy of racism and how that legacy continues to deny people basic human rights.
In the courtroom, there’s an undeniable bias against people like McMillian and the story shows how tough it can be to get justice when the system feels rigged against certain people. Stevenson isn’t immune to those acts outside of the courtroom either. A particularly egregious scene shows the young lawyer being strip-searched before a meeting with his client.
Michael B. Jordan does a great job in the lead role here, playing a man who has to hide his frustrations in the courtroom. The performance features the actor turning off the commanding strength that he exhibited in Black Panther and relying on subtle gestures — and knowing glances — to show his emotions. Oscar-winning co-star Jamie Foxx delivers a stirring performance here as well, dialing down his natural charisma to present McMillian as a man who has been undone by the flawed justice system.
In some ways, Just Mercy feels very similar to the 1988 drama Mississippi Burning in its depiction of racism in some Southern communities. However, this film’s power lays in its ability to speak to a larger issue while focusing on one specific case. Racist individuals aren’t the only villains here. The film reveals the institutional issues at play here that let people like McMillian and others like him suffer in a justice system that is oftentimes anything but just.
Blu-Ray Special Features: The Blu-Ray special features include a featurette about the making of the film, a short video about the Equal Justice Initiative, and a few deleted scenes. A particular highlight is the featurette about the Equal Justice Initiative and the incredible work that it’s done under the leadership of Bryan Stevenson, who is featured prominently in several of the featurettes.