Bryan Stevenson has long been one of my greatest heroes since I discovered his work (noted here) through the book version of Just Mercy, so I was thrilled to see the film adaptation on the big screen. In the movie, Michael B. Jordan plays the lawyer in the earliest part of his career when he took on Walter McMillian aka Johnny D’s case. Walter was wrongfully convicted of murdering a young white girl and sentenced to death. Just Mercy mostly focuses on Bryan fighting for Walter while the DA, sheriff, and every judge want to see Walter be put to death. This is in Alabama, after all. The movie also features interactions between Walter and the two men who were caged on either side of him on death row: Herbert Richardson and Anthony Ray Hinton. Bryan represents Mr. Richardson and tries to save his life, but he is ultimately sent to the death chamber–a long scene that wrecked me while I read the book and watched the film version. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that Just Mercy is not for the faint of heart. I highly recommend reading the book first because the character plots will be easier to follow, but it isn’t that difficult if you are unfamiliar with Bryan or any of the men’s stories.
I loved the movie and thought the filmmakers did a phenomenal job translating the book to screen. As I’ve educated myself more about the issues with incarceration and the criminal legal system, I think it’s important to recognize that innocence work and campaigns to end the death penalty only go so far. The reason why Herbert’s execution was so devastating to me was because he had caused harm and the state was punishing him for that. Of course it’s easy to rally around people like Walter McMillian and Rodney Reed, but the only way to achieve true justice is to fight for everyone, innocent or “guilty”, no matter what they’ve done. As Bryan Stevenson says, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” I’m so thankful that Just Mercy will bring a new audience in to the discussion about crime/racism/prisons, and I hope that each person who leaves the auditorium will push even further and acknowledge that no one deserves to be caged and/or executed.