Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s film released December 2019, “Just Mercy,” details how legal structures — which are meant to ensure that all Americans are treated fairly — can perpetuate a cycle of vulnerability, poverty, and racial inequality in the United States.
It begins in 1987 Alabama, the year Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) is sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit. The adaptation of Bryan Stevenson’s autobiographic novel of the same name stars Michael B. Jordan as the formidable, young and ambitious Black lawyer. After graduating from Harvard, Stevenson heads to Alabama to defend wrongfully convicted Death Row inmates and those who cannot afford proper representation. The movie chronicles his battle against racism and small-town politics as he fights for McMillian’s life in the years that follow.
Cretton’s first three features all starred white protagonists, but “Just Mercy” was an opportunity to do things differently — and not just in front of the camera. It was the first film made under Warner Media’s new company-wide diversity and inclusion policy, spearheaded in part by “Just Mercy” star and executive producer Michael B. Jordan. It meant that when Cretton started hiring department heads, he encountered none of the institutional resistance that has historically blocked so many people of color from advancing their careers.
Cretton has also spent much of his life on the periphery, navigating diminished expectations and prejudiced first impressions. Cretton grew up the son of a Japanese mother and a white father, the second oldest of six siblings. They all lived in a small two-bedroom home in the tiny, two-road community of Haiku on the island of Maui.
Cretton has reached this moment as the entertainment industry has itself grappled with the question of who gets to tell the stories of people who don’t often, if ever, get their stories told. As one of few Asian American directors to have a feature film career at all, Cretton’s confronting that issue just as Hollywood has finally appeared to make substantive strides toward more diverse representation on screen, and more equal opportunities off-screen.
The production of this film, both directed by and starring people of color, is itself representative of how persistence can lead to progress and emphasizes the importance of active resistance to unfair institutions. The film also argues that by dehumanizing others, people dehumanize themselves, leading to the central message that instead of punishment, society should focus on compassion. Giving and receiving unexpected and even undeserved mercy, in Stevenson’s eyes, is the only way to break the escalating cycles of violence, punishment, and hatred that characterize the criminal justice system.
Herbert Richardson’s portrayal (Rob Morgan) exemplifies this philosophy. Richardson was put on death row for the 1977 killing of Rena Mae Callins, after a pipe bomb he left on the porch of her home detonated. Richardson served in the military and suffered severe PTSD as a result. His lawyer never brought up his service in court and was tried before an all-white jury.
Despite his appeals, Bryan is unable to reverse Herbert’s capital murder charge and, in a spine-chilling scene, the audience must bear witness to Herbert’s execution. The scared but dignified man says goodbye to his friends and is led down to the waiting room where he meets with Bryan and prays.
In the cells above, his friends begin banging their cups on the cell bars. They create enough noise for Herbert to hear and remember that he is not alone in his final moments. It is a powerful moment of humanity at an unexpected time and in an unexpected place.
Herbert Richardson was guilty. He committed that crime. But at the end of the day, the film leaves it up to you to decide whether or not he should have gotten the death penalty.
At the heart of “Just Mercy” is the idea that everyone is capable of making mistakes, even terrible ones, and that, at one time or another, “we all need some measure of unmerited grace.”