Nathan Jordan ‘22
Just Mercy, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson, follows the story of Bryan Stevenson as he moves to Alabama to start a nonprofit legal organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, which represents prisoners facing the death penalty. The movie, a dramatic retelling, centers mainly on Stevenson’s efforts to free Walter McMillian, a black man falsely accused of murdering a white woman. The film brings to the screen both the personal and systemic racism that Stevenson faces as he tries to bring Walter home, despite the obviously false conviction and the mountain of evidence proving Walter’s innocence.
Film is not the only medium through which Stevenson’s story has been filtered. His best-selling book (of the same name) provides a more thorough telling of Walter’s story, in addition to presenting the stories of other injustices he’s seen in the incarceration system. Additionally, his lectures—like the one at Davidson last week—focus on ways in which all of us can take steps to create a more just world.
The film, book and lecture each provide a different means through which to engage with and learn about racial injustices in our incarceration system. Stevenson’s works and their ability to challenge systems not based on effectiveness or finality but on humanity and mercy offer a unique perspective on race, class and fairness that I believe empowers the voices in our society many of us (including myself, as a white student at Davidson) have traditionally not listened to: the poor and the imprisoned.
However, not everyone has engaged with each of these mediums of Stevenson’s work. Only specific audiences have read Stevenson’s book or traveled to one of his lectures. Part of what defines the film’s success is its ability to appeal to a much wider audience, especially those who are not aware of present-day racial inequality and injustice. Since the film’s audience is larger and may include those less familiar with EJI’s work, the film’s message adapts to focus on visualizing Stevenson’s and Walter’s struggles.
Additionally, while the film dives into Walter’s life, it ignores Stevenson’s personal life. At his lecture here last week, Stevenson openly discussed brokenness and how it inspires the work he does. He goes further in the book, as he describes balancing being heartbroken with knowing that “there is more work to do.” Just being present and a witness to the inhumanity of our system breaks Stevenson. Yet the film represents him as a calm, unwavering hero. The film struggles to grapple with Stevenson’s own humanity and the emotional toll of working to fix a complex and harmful system.
Ultimately, each medium—whether book, film, or lecture—serves a different function. Though the statistics mentioned in the beginning of the book or at the lecture inform readers that a problem exists, the film invokes a strong emotional response which makes those unfamiliar with the issue believe in and care about the film’s message. Just Mercy is powerful because of its ability to show on screen the very injustices that the majority of our country has refused to acknowledge or talk about since its founding.
Bryan Stevenson writes in his book about “the kind of hope that creates a willingness to position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness, that allows one to believe in a better future, even in the face of abusive power. That kind of hope makes one strong.” Though there are many valid critiques of the film, anyone who watches Just Mercy becomes a witness to Walter’s story and will hopefully be inspired to advocate for a reshaping of our incarceration system.
Nathan Jordan is a Political Science Major from Charlottesville, VA. He can be reached for comment at email@example.com