(Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)
Just in Time this Time Around
Sometimes, art and artists can come out ahead of its time.
Legendary rapper Rakim probably burst onto the music scene ahead of his time when it came to the intricacies of his rhymes.
Likewise, “Just Mercy” might have come out a few months too early based on its subject matter.
But thankfully, the second time around is often better than the first time to paraphrase R&B group, Shalamar.
Now, with the free release of “Just Mercy” on digital platforms across the country, the film is the perfect piece of art for these turbulent times in America.
For many African-Americans, “Just Mercy” is not a period piece.
Movies that take place in the past, with old school cars and old school clothes receive the label period piece because they represent a place and time long since lost to the history books.
Unfortunately for African-Americans, some issues that should be timely for just a brief moment in time become timeless because certain things keep repeating itself like a broken record.
Systemic racism, police corruption and brutality are just as timely in 2020 as it was in the 19th or 20th centuries.
For that reason, “Just Mercy” should not get labeled as a period piece, but rather a snapshot of modern day America that took place in 1987 rural Alabama.
In “Just Mercy,” Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx, “Baby Driver”) has achieved the countryman’s dream.
He has a successful business.
He has a great family.
He has his own home.
He has a nice pickup truck with fancy rims.
And he even has a female admirer or two, not named his wife.
So when Johnny D gets pulled over by local police, he initially does not take the traffic stop too seriously.
He shows officers his hands so they do not think that he poses a threat.
Unfortunately, over 30 years later African-Americans still have to follow that ritual whenever pulled over by law enforcement officials.
But his compliance with local police officers does not result in a routine traffic stop, ticket and a return to one’s normal day.
This traffic stop ends with him being taken out of the car and getting arrested for the murder of a young White girl.
Johnny D even says that he did not even worry about the arrest because he knew he had the truth on his side.
But as countless African-American martyrs of the American nightmare called racism can attest, the truth does not matter when it comes from the mouths of African-Americans.
Lies from the White man become the truth simply because a White man says so.
Therefore, an innocent man can see his freedom and his life snatched because of the lies of a White man or White men.
Johnny D languishes on death row as he goes through lawyer after lawyer and appeal after appeal.
However, when an idealistic young Harvard University Law School student named Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan, “Fruitvale Station”) forges a bond with a man his age and from his religious domination on death row, he begins a lifelong journey of speaking up for the voiceless lost to the oppressive American legal system.
Bryan’s biggest problem, however, is his youthful naiveté.
The young lawyer is from Delaware.
And although racism exists throughout the world, and not just in the American South, Alabama’s racism in the late 1980s is definitely culture shock for the young attorney who turned down lucrative job offers in order to make a difference in Alabama.
Bryan and his assistant Eva Ansley (Brie Larson, “Room”) have difficulty finding office space to lease.
Eva and her husband Doug (Dominic Bogart) have threats made against their home.
The Ansley family gets threats over the telephone.
Nevertheless, Eva does not let the threats deter her from her life’s work.
Eva tells Bryan, that she does not want her son Kris (Sebastian Eugene Hansen) to grow up knowing that his mother could have made a positive difference but did not because she let fear overcome her.
As a result, Bryan and Eva get to work trying to overturn wrongful convictions of men on Alabama’s death row.
While many prisoners like Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan, “The Photograph”) and Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson, Jr. “Straight Outta Compton”) jump at the opportunity at a new trial, Johnny D is reluctant.
The accused murderer has seen it all since he got stranded on death row.
He has seen countless lawyers take his family’s money, only to disappear after the well runs dry.
The former entrepreneur has seen retrials denied.
So what makes him think that Bryan is any different?
As a matter of fact, he sees Bryan as a young kid that does not know what he is getting himself into down South.
He warns Bryan that his fancy suits, Ivy League education and his habit of talking White will not change the White folks in rural Alabama, especially the ones in power.
However, when Bryan makes the effort to travel down that old dirt road to visit the McMillan home, which is crammed with neighbors, Johnny D realizes the young kid is serious about freeing him from the bondage of a new form of slavery.
Foxx just does an awesome job in “Just Mercy.”
Although Jordan has the lead role, it is Foxx who gives “Just Mercy” its soul.
The heartfelt performance is Foxx’s best supporting role, even besting his Oscar-nominated performance in “Collateral,” playing opposite Tom Cruise.
However, the costume department at the set of “Just Mercy” dropped the ball with Johnny D’s mustache in early scenes.
But “Just Mercy” is not about trivial things like mustaches.
The movie resonates even more today than it did at its release because it represents the pain of the African-American community battling a crooked and unjust criminal justice system.
“Just Mercy” shows the agony of families torn apart by racism.
The movie “Just Mercy” shows the lives destroyed by lies.
But it also shows how wrongs can be corrected.
And hopefully 2020 is the year that America finishes correcting the wrongs of its original sin of slavery and racism.