JUST MERCY Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony has a question for you.

What kind of German would you have been?

In the eighties, that was a question asked in German schools to make pupils think about the moral implications of Nazism – it made students in the same place but a different time think about how they’d react to a political and social version of the truth that was weighted against Those People – all the people decried as ‘lesser’ by the Nazi regime. Would you have been a German who stood up for Those People, hid them, helped them? Or would you have been too scared of state power? Would you have joined in? Would you have helped the authorities wage a civil war against Those People?

It’s a question that Germany at least had the courage to embrace head on after the Second World War. Less often do European countries and the US confront their previous crimes and attitudes towards the people they’ve wronged over generations.

Just Mercy is a film that will make you think about questions like this. Based on the true story of Walter McMillian, a man of colour imprisoned for the murder of a young white woman, not in the black and white 1950, but in the supposedly advanced 1980s, in the same place as shiploads of people were offloaded and sold into slavery, very much to be Those People to the people in the white hegemony of the South.

McMillian’s conviction hung on the word of a white prisoner who claimed to have been forced to be an unwitting part of the killing, and whose help in the McMillian conviction got him a reduced sentence.

The question is put – can people of colour get true justice in somewhere like Alabama even in the Eighties? When Harvard law student Bryan Stevenson arrives, he’s determined that the law should mean justice – and that means doing the work, researching the evidence, and standing for the truth, irrespective of what the authorities say, or whatever intimidation comes as the price.

It’s a movie that bristles with tension – not because of any drama over whether McMillian committed the crime for which he’s convicted, as it’s obvious fairly early on that he didn’t, but because of the atmosphere of the time and place, the leftover racism which seeps up from the ground of history into some of the authority figures, and the fight between what’s obviously factual and what can be allowed to be true in a time and place where people who are ‘not racist, but…’ are in positions of power, able to decide which facts are facts, which truths are truths, and who should suffer as a result.

Y’know…like right now. Right now in the highest positions in the land across the United States and the United Kingdom.

That’s the thing with Just Mercy – for white audiences, it balances between the blushing scandal that such a thing could happen even in the 1980s, and the sure and certain knowledge that it could still happen right now in the 2020s, and that makes it hit home. If you’re saddened by some of the consequences in this movie, if you’re disturbed by the twisting of evidence, the intimidation of witnesses, the stop and search policies of police when a young black lawyer dares to raise issues of justice for prisoners of colour in Alabama, then look around, Bucko, and see where we are right now. Watch this movie. Enjoy this movie. Then get up and do what you can to help.

The performances in this movie are for the most part gloriously understated. Michael B Jordan as Bryan Stevenson brings the presence of a young Denzel Washington, and before him a young Sidney Poitier to the screen in a role which demands calm and grace under extreme provocation (including an early sequence where he has to undergo a strip search by a white prison officer just to see his potential client – over and above the normal requirement for lawyers visiting prisoners). Jamie Foxx as McMillian adds another firm notch on a career whittled almost entirely out of spellbinding performances. Brie Larson, free of superhero duties, proves you don’t need Lycra or leather to be awesome, taking a subdued role as Eva Ansley, powerhouse and co-founder with Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative. All of these performers, along with a host of others playing McMillian’s fellow Death Row inmates, and his family, ground the drama very much in a believable, identifiable time and place, and the line between entertainment and education is effectively, engagingly blurred.

We learn early on that quite apart from being only McMillian’s story, or Stevenson’s story, this is a movie with broader things to say – many of the cases Stevenson takes on are men of colour who had either no legal representation at all, or insultingly scant representation. Anthony Ray Hinton, played by O’Shea Jackson Jr, was told by the judge who sentenced him that he could ‘tell he was guilty just by looking at him.’ Rob Morgan’s portrayal of Herbert Richardson will break your heart, not just because it’s an effective, underplayed performance, but because we learn that Richardson was a Vietnam vet who suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A more wide-ranging healthcare service in his time and place might have saved him ever from setting foot on Death Row. A more efficient, balanced, fact-centred justice system might have seen him referred to medical care, rather than counting down the days to an execution that may or may not get deferred.

This movie is both a warning for our times, not to let the standards of justice ever slip into easy stereotype or rapid-fire value-judgment, and a reflection of the time and place and the lazy justice at play in some courts in Alabama (and elsewhere) in decades past. It’s a compelling watch, crammed with performances that allow it to feel like what it is – a story of real people in stressful circumstances. It will break your heart, make you yell at the screen at least once (in a moment when justice seems particularly absent), and ultimately make you hopeful that we might be heading in a better direction because of the lives and the continuing work of people like Stevenson and Ansley.

The work continues, because the work, unbelievably and yet inevitably, is still needed. Equal justice, and just mercy are never guaranteed in the absence of vigilance, hard work and fair representation. They’re as necessary today as they were in the 1980s. Take a trip at least notionally back in time with Just Mercy, and let its message live in your heart. In German schools, they used to ask what kind of German you’d have been. Just Mercy makes you wonder what kind of Alabaman would you have been, just 20-30 years ago? And what kind of you are you now?

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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