“Just Mercy” is a film based upon a true story that is shocking and utterly challenging to viewers. I’d like to look at the film from a worldview perspective. I’ve already written about the book, as well. There will be SPOILERS in our discussion here. I’m not going to summarize the plot, but a summary may be found here.
I was struck by a couple reviews I saw talked about how the plot was cliched. There’s the trope of the corrupt, racist sheriff. There’s the unapologetic DA. The judge who participates in defending the system. But what such complaints ignore is this is a true story. The tropes become more than the alleged cardboard cutouts here–the racist sheriff was re-elected six times after Johnny D. is exonerated. The narrative of racism is supported by the fact that Johnny D. was hated by the white community for sleeping with a white woman. It was an unforgivable sin, and they decided he needed to pay with his life, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Sometimes, cliches are real.
Systemic Racism is A Thing
There are some who argue there’s no such thing as systemic racism. The naivete of that sentiment would be quaint if it were not so damaging. Some seem to think that after the Civil Rights era, racism magically was drained of all power. But here we have a powerful portrayal of injustice based upon race with dates that are well within the memory of most adults.
I was especially struck by the comparison of the death penalty to lynching. There’s something to be said for the comparison, too. Laws that appear to be color-blind can be absolutely racist when they are applied in ways that are not color-blind in any way. Black men are much more likely to be sentenced to death. What’s even more alarming is seeing cases like those in this movie. One of them had a jury recommend life in prison, but the judge overrode it and sentenced the man to death. How much power is that to give to one person? To allow the feelings and biases of one person to condemn another to death, even against the recommendation of a jury!
Going along with this, there is the question of who is chosen for the death penalty. When black men are the ones sentenced to death, questions of perceptions (why are black men seen as particularly deserving of capital punishment?), bias (why are black men seen as especially dangerous?), and more must be raised. This is a clear example of systemic injustice. What people often don’t realize is that saying something is systemic racism does not mean that it must be outrightly, knowingly racist. It simply may have racially biased outcomes. See, for example, Kendi’s discussion in How to Be an Antiracist (my review here).
The Old Rugged Cross and Spirituality
There’s no question faith runs throughout this movie. Whether it’s Bryan Stevenson talking at his first meeting with a man on death row about being in the church choir or the call Stevenson makes at the end for a mercy tempered by justice and even a little unmerited grace, faith is a powerful, resonating theme.
One of the most poignant moments in the movie is when Herbert Richardson is led to his execution. Richardson was a Vietnam veteran with clear signs of PTSD. Yes, he killed a little girl, but the very nation state for which he fought and descended into hell abandoned him and left him on his own. Richardson’s stay of execution is denied, and he is led to the electric chair as the haunting melody of “The Old Rugged Cross” plays in the background. He sits in the chair. He is electrocuted by the state that he laid his life on the line for every day. It’s awful. The Old Rugged cross.
“Just Mercy” is a powerful, challenging movie. It challenges assumptions. It challenges bias. It challenges your soul. I don’t think it would be possible to watch this film and be completely unmoved. Please, watch it.
The Death Penalty and Just Mercy– Bryan Stephenson’s personal look at capital punishment– Stevenson’s book is just as powerful as the movie and deserves your attention.
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Engaging Culture: A brief guide for movies– I outline my approach to evaluating movies from a worldview perspective.
I have a number of ways in which I have critically engaged with culture in movies, books, and other arts in my posts on current events (scroll down for more posts).
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