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aaLAWchak: Just Mercy

Movie: Just Mercy

Starring: Michael B Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Tim Blake Nelson, Rob Morgan, Rafe Spall, O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Michael Harding

Directed by:Destin Daniel Cretton

Year of release: 2019

Introduction

‘Just Mercy’ is based on the true story and activist lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s 2014 memoir, titled “Just Mercy – A Story of Justice and Redemption”[1]. The movie showcases how black lives are subjected to mass incarceration on the basis of prejudice, poverty and racism.

The movie opens in 1987 in Montgomery, Alabama where Walter ‘Johnny D’ McMillian (Jamie Foxx) a tree feller, is arrested by Sheriff Tate (Michael Harding) for the murder of a white teenage girl named Ronda Morrison. In 1989, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) an African American lawyer graduating from Harvard University moves to Alabama to defend death row inmates who cannot afford legal representation.

Bryan along with Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) started a non-profit organisation known as Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)[2] to provide legal aid to the inmates. Two of his first clients were Johnny D and Herbert ‘Herb’ Richardson (Rob Morgan) a war veteran with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The Investigation

The day Bryan goes to visit the inmates in the prison he is instructed by the prison guard to strip all his clothes and empty all his belongings in order to be searched before going inside. This enrages Bryan but he refrains from objecting because he just wanted to get inside. This only proves that even though civil rights may have been granted but racial prejudice is still prevalent.

After conversing with Johnny D and learning about the facts of the case from his point of view, Bryan starts digging for more evidence to exonerate his client of the murder charge. While looking for these evidences, he realises that Johnny D’s entire case is based on the testimony of an indicted felon Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson) who is also serving time in another prison facility. After collecting key evidences Bryan’s first move is to ask prosecutor Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall) for aid. Chapman dismisses him without even looking at the evidence he present and suggestions he make. Bryan then asks Johnny D’s family friend Darnell Houston (Darrell Britt-Gibson) to testify that he was with a witness who corroborated Myers’ testimony on the day of the murder, which would cause the prosecution’s case to fall apart. When Bryan submits Houston’s testimony, police arrest him for perjury. While Bryan is able to get the perjury charges dismissed, Houston is intimidated into refusing to testify in court.

Shortly afterwards, Bryan is intimidated by two sheriff deputies who stop his car at gunpoint, kick him out of it and illegally search the car. They refuse to tell him why he was pulled over and let him go. This scene invokes a sense of fear, aggression and helplessness, all at once. It makes sure that the viewer feels exactly what Bryan is feeling. It also shows the height of injustice and entitlement of the rich and powerful considering themselves superior on the basis of their skin colour. Soon after we see that an execution date has been set for Herbert even after all the efforts put in by EJI, they cannot get a grant for retrial for him.

Herb is executed on an electric chair through electrocution. Bryan along with some other prison officials is present there to witness the execution and he describes it as “the most horrific thing I’ve ever experienced.”  The inhuman treatment towards prisoners, especially the ones those aren’t white is unnerving and yet shown as a common practice in the late 80’s.

While scouting for evidence for Johnny D, Bryan comes across an audio tape of the first testimony of Myers in which he stated that he was not aware of the whereabouts of Johnny D at the time of Ronda’s murder and that he would not make a false confession to put an innocent man on death row.

After listening to this audio Bryan confronts Myers where he admits that his testimony was coerced after the police played to his fear of being burned and threatened to have him executed by electric chair. 

Bryan appeals to the local court to grant Johnny D a retrial and successfully convinces Myers to recant his testimony on the stand, but the judge nevertheless refuses to grant a retrial. Bryan appears on “60 Minutes” an American reporter-centred investigation news program, to rally public support in favour of Johnny D, and then appeals to the Supreme Court of Alabama. The Supreme Court overturns the circuit court’s decision, and grants Johnny D his retrial.

The Finale

Bryan then motions to have the charges dismissed entirely. Meanwhile Chapman pleads the Court to grant a stay on the proceedings of Johnny D’s case so that he can open up an investigation.

Seeing this as Chapman’s attempt to buy more time to rebuild his case Bryan confronts him at his house. He confronts Chapman at his home and tries to convince him to join him in his motion but Chapman admits that he is under major scrutiny from the officials of the state, the victim’s parents and the entire community. It is inevitable in this scene, the conflict in Chapman’s eyes. He wants to do the right thing by joining Bryan’s motion but he is also a government servant that has to follow the orders of his seniors. Chapman angrily ejects him from his property. However, on the day of the motion Bryan appeals to the judge, Chapman agrees to join Bryan in his motion.

The case is dismissed and Johnny D is finally reunited with his family

Legal Angle

The American Constitution via its 13th Amendment (1865) abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime, and authorized Congress to enforce the abolition.  Congress intended the Thirteenth Amendment to be a proclamation of freedom for all slaves throughout the nation.

Further via its 14th Amendment (1868) granted United States citizenship to former slaves and to all persons “subject to U.S. jurisdiction”. It also contained three new limits on state power:

  • a state shall not violate a citizen’s privileges or immunities;
  • shall not deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law;
  • must guarantee all persons equal protection of the laws.[3]

Even though slavery has been abolished in the USA, people of colour are still considered as low class and undeserving. The obsession with white / pale skin originated from England. When Britain established various colonies all over the world as a result they sent many of its officials to all these parts for supervision. English having inherently pale skin due to the lack of sun due to their geographical location and since they were the masters of these colonies they developed a sense of supremacy. So much so, that they referred to Britain as ‘Great Britain’. This discrimination on the basis of skin colour, race and class gave rise to racism and classism.

Established colonies of England such as USA, Africa and India went through and still continue to go through racism classism and discrimination because of colour. The movie beautifully highlights the struggles of a black man living in the USA. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd a black American man, was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during an arrest for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. A white police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost 8 minutes while Floyd was handcuffed and lying face down, begging for his life and repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe”. Officers further restrained Floyd, while another officer prevented bystanders from intervening. During the final two minutes, Floyd was motionless and had no pulse while an officer ignored onlookers’ pleas to remove his knee, which he did not do until medics told him to.[4]

This triggered huge protests against police brutality, police racism and lack of police accountability by the citizens in various different states and a hash tag known as #blacklivesmatter started trending. Consequently, all the officers involved were fired.

Coming to the 14th amendment, all the limits mentioned in this have been violated in this movie and not one scene goes by without reminding us of that. The lack of black men in the jury, lack of proper legal representation, lack of willingness to help, lack of efforts, lack of sympathy etc. are only some of the facilities that the inmates are deprived of.

Conclusion

The movie is a wakeup call that the American Constitution needs to update its language with time.[5] Even after making these amendments the Constitution nowhere specifies anything about not discriminating on the basis of caste, colour, race or class. The lack of opportunities given to the black community pushes them further down the poverty line and refrains from giving them a chance to be an equal to a white citizen.

Jaime Foxx’s face goes through sadness, hurt, dejection, helplessness, hope all at once. The quiet moments between his character and Bryan speak the loudest of injustice and indifference towards black lives. His silence an unwillingness to give Bryan a chance to fight for him shows that he has given up on the idea of justice & freedom and yet after conversing with Bryan his eyes have a ray of hope.

Michael B Jordan brings so much character to Bryan. He is the voice of the youth that will not become a party to injustice. He displays a huge array of emotion right from fear to courage, dejection to hope, vulnerability to strong will power.

Just Mercy is more than a feature film. It’s the depiction of harsh reality and also a stark reminder that it’s high time the system changes. It is an eye opener that depicts how passage of time means nothing if the time is not used for the betterment of the conditions of people around us.

EJI continues till date to provide legal help and representation to the needy and the misrepresented.

Author: Ms. Pragati Pachisia, JCCLC


[1] Bryan Stevenson, “Just Mercy – A Story of Justice and Redemption”, available at: https://justmercy.EJI.org/

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Constitution of America and its amendments”, available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitution_of_the_United_States#Safeguards_of_civil_rights_(Amendments_13,_14,_15,_19,_23,_24,_and_26)

[4] “Killing of George Floyd”, available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killing_of_George_Floyd

[5] Richard Albert, “Time to update the language of the Constitution”, available at: https://thehill.com/opinion/white-house/505071-time-to-update-the-language-of-the-constitution

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