Just Mercy: A Commentary on Systemic Murder
The 2019 Drama, Just Mercy, starring Michael B Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson tells the very true and disturbing story of Walter McMillian better known as Johnny D. In 1986, Johnny D was accused of walking into a Monroeville, Alabama dry cleaner and murdering a young white woman in broad daylight. The only evidence of the alleged crime was given through testimony from a career criminal, Ralph Myers, who in prior and later statements repeatedly recanted his testimony. Not only was there no physical evidence implicating Walter McMillan to this murder, but several witnesses testified that McMillan attended a fish fry during the time of the murder. Despite the vast lack of evidence and the large number of alibi testimonies, a Monroeville, Alabama jury of only white men and women charged Mr. McMillan as guilty after a trial which lasted only one day and a half. In a controversial move by the judge, McMillan was sentenced to the death penalty in 1988 even though the jury had already imposed a sentence of life imprisonment. McMillan endured 6 years of time on death row waiting to be executed for a crime he clearly didn’t commit as Alabama officials repeatedly rejected his appeals for a new trial.
The movie follows the perspective of Bryan Stevenson, portrayed by Michael B Jordan in the film. Stevenson is a Harvard Law graduate from the state of Delaware who started a Non-profit firm in Alabama to battle the injustices placed on the lives of black men and women in the south. Through Stephenson’s perspective, the audience can experience the dehumanizing tactics of law enforcement against black men. In one scene, Stephenson is forced to strip down to the nude by a prison officer in order to have counsel with his imprisoned clients. The officer boastfully smiles while demanding that Stevenson bends over and coughs while fully nude. The hopelessness, confusion and anger in Jordan’s expression as he tackles this scene makes it clear that even the most successful of black men are often prey to the heartless tactics of systemic white supremacy.
In another scene, Stevenson is pulled over by two Monroeville police officers who scatter his case files while holding him at gunpoint. This scene hits close to home for many within the black community. Too many of us are forcefully pushed into silence as the trigger finger of one hateful, cowardly human being serves as street judge, jury and executioner over our God given lives. It’s difficult not to feel overcome with emotion while hearing the despair in Michael B Jordan’s voice as he repeatedly asks why he was pulled over, even after his badge wearing assailants leave him alone and frightened in the night.
The film also sheds light on the story of Herbert Richardson, who served on death row alongside Walter McMillan. Richardson was a black Vietnam War veteran who fought courageously on the front lines of the brutal war. He was honorably discharged from military service due to psychiatric illness gained as a result of his service in the war. In 1978, Richardson was convicted of capitol murder, but during his trial, no mention of his military career or untreated mental illness was introduced. In the film, we watch as all the hair is shaved from Richardson’s body, including his eyebrows. We experience his grief as he waits for his execution after being denied an appeal by the same government that he sacrificed his sanity in order to protect. The prison is filled with the clanking of the prisoner’s mugs against the steel bars of their cells as they all unite in an act of honor towards their fellow man whose life was taken far too soon. In 1989, after 11 years on death row, Richardson was executed by means of the electric chair. Stevenson is nearly broken and overcome with tears after watching the execution of his client.
From this point on in the film, the stakes are higher for Walter McMillan, who is convincingly portrayed by Jamie Foxx, as execution lowly looms over his head. We watch as the state of Alabama repeatedly ignores the evidence and denies his request for a new trial. Things look bleak when the Alabama District Court, who finally oversees the motion for retrial rejects it with no justifiable reason. Our hearts are crushed while seeing this. All hope seems lost. Our sorrow is suffocating. Our anger is overwhelming. Regardless of race, as a human being we feel defeated by a system intent on cruelty and hate.
After a collaborative effort by the Monroeville District Attorney, state judges of various levels, the police chief and his officers to systematically murder Walter McMillan, he was eventually exonerated of all charges. Unfortunately, his exoneration only came after years spent awaiting his death by execution. For six years, a wife was denied her husband. A son and daughter were both denied their father. Siblings were denied their brother. A mother and father were denied freedom for their son. A community was denied its neighbor. Now as you’re sitting on your couch, watching in disgust as protestors and even some rioters are angrily fighting for their lives and the lives within their communities, ask yourself, how hard would you fight for your sons, daughters, husbands, wives, parents, neighbors and friends. What lengths would you go through in order to protect them from being unjustifiably executed? When your government is intent on killing you, what other options do you have?
For the month of June, Just Mercy, will be free to rent on all platforms. A movement of both revolution and evolution is taking place within our streets. Don’t deny yourself the opportunity to evolve along with us. #BlackLivesMatter
J.E. Tyler is a five-time published fiction author and poet. He has also served as a contributing author for His Favor Magazine. Tyler's creative muscle has no bounds as he has written several different genres including adult drama, children's literature, romance, comedy, and science fiction. For more on Tyler's published work, visit the links below.