‘Just’ About Perfect
- By George Prentice
“If we look at ourselves closely and honestly, I believe we will see that we all need justice,” says Bryan Stevenson (Jordan) near the film’s conclusion. “We all need justice, we all need mercy, and we all need some measure of unmerited grace.”
Bear witness to Just Mercy and you’ll soon recognize a story so much more than justice denied to a black man on death row: It’s revelatory of a cancer of America itself. African Americans. Hispanic Americans. Asian Americans. Native Americans. What they, and we, share is a common suffix of identity: Americans. Even the film’s title, “Just Mercy,” affirms the moral of its story. Yes, our eyes readily dart to the emotional resonance of the word “mercy” in the title, but consider for a moment the title’s other word, “just,” from the Latin iustus. And if I recall my college etymology, “iustus” is to say “righteous, equitable, lawful” or even “perfect.” Indeed, you may not find a more “perfect” experience at the cinema this season; and given that it features two bonafide Oscar winners (Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson) and showcases the best performance, to date, from Michael B. Jordan, the most exciting young actor on the planet, you may find that, like me, it’s worth seeing Just Mercy twice—once for self-validation, and again with someone you care deeply for.
Just Mercy is based on the true story of attorney Bryan Stevenson and a history-making battle for justice. After graduating from Harvard, Stevenson had his pick of lucrative jobs. Instead, he headed for Alabama to defend the wrongly condemned or improperly represented.
“You don’t know what you’re into down here in Alabama, where you’re guilty from the moment you’re born,” Stevenson is told from client Walter McMillan (Foxx), who was sentenced to die for the notorious murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite a preponderance of evidence proving his innocence.
The morning after Just Mercy’s premiere at TIFF, Jordan, who is also one of the film’s producers, told me, “I’m so proud of what we’ve done here. You get to know Walter and see the humanity of an innocent man wrongly convicted, but you also see Bryan’s courage and passion, and understand why he dedicated his life to this cause through the Equal Justice Initiative.”
Ultimately, Just Mercy reminds us that there is no “justice for all” as we once pledged to the flag as children. For certain there is justice for some, but there is also extreme injustice for many others. Indeed, our lives are not unlike trials, reminders of ugliness of what humans are capable of doing to each other. But occasionally, mercy emerges. And when that mercy is “just”, it is a near-perfection of the human condition.