In the film Just Mercy directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, a young lawyer named Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) moves to Alabama to start a nonprofit organization focused on liberating people wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death row because of racial discrimination. Stevenson’s main case through out the entirety of the movie is one in which a middle aged black man named Walter McMillian (Denzel Washington) has been convicted of murdering a young white woman despite the entire case being based on the false testimony of a white convict who made a plea deal in exchange. The white prosecutors chose to ignore the evidence that would have exonerated Walter McMillian and instead rigged the case to make sure he was convicted. The movie depicts the struggles of not just Mr. McMillian and his lawyer Mr. Stevenson to get the ruling overturned, but struggles of the entire black community in Monroe, Alabama against a system unequivocally in favor of whites.
The beginning of the movie immediately parallels itself with another famous depiction of racial injustice in the Unites States; To Kill a Mockingbird. Not only does Just Mercy take place in the town in which Harper Lee wrote TKAMB, but the plot revolves around the trial of a black man in a white justice system. Also furthering the prevalence of racial discrimination in both works is the name Robert E. Lee, most notably the name of the Confederate Commander during the American Civil War. The judge that first sentences Mr. McMillian is named Robert E. Lee Key, similar to the name of the man accusing Tom Robinson in TKAMB, Robert E. Lee Ewell. The similarities between these two works and their portrayal of racial injustice is hauntingly similar, one being a novel set fifty years before the actual events that Just Mercy is based on occurred, showing the prevalence and continuation that racial injustice has had throughout American history.
The main trials in both works, those of Tom Robinson in TKAMB and Walter McMillian in Just Mercy, both show the racial prejudice against black people in the southern United States. Neither actually committed the crime they were convicted for, both were fighting against a white system with all white juries and judges, and because of this, both had no faith in the justice system. In Just Mercy, Mr. McMillian is originally reluctant to allow Mr. Stevenson to take on his case because he thought it would be pointless due to the white judicial system that needed someone to blame for the murder of the young white woman. One of the cases that Mr. Stevenson and his coworker encounter is one where a white defense attorney states of his black client, “Mad dogs ought to die,” (00:13:30). This shows the mindset and willingness of white people, even defense attorneys assigned to black people, to readily sentence black people to the death penalty, making it hard for any black person to have faith in the justice system. In TKAMB, Tom Robinson similarly lost all faith in the justice system after he and Atticus Finch lose his case in court and he is sentenced to die. Instead of waiting for the outcome of the legal appeal process which Atticus had high hopes for, Tom Robinson decided to risk his life in an attempt to escape from prison which resulted in his death. The fact that both Mr. McMillian and Tom Robinson were so hopeless despite being innocent where they just accepted death as their fate demonstrates how strongly rooted racial injustice is within the Unites States.
Not only was this racial prejudice epitomized with the wrongful convictions of black men, it also occurred in numerous other instances in the works. In both Just Mercy and TKAMB, the black spectators of the trials were forced to sit or stand in the very back of the court room. Mr. Stevenson was also pulled over and held at gun point by police and subjected to a full strip search in the jail before meeting with his client seemingly because of the color of his skin. A black witness, Mr. Houston, was arrested for perjury by white cops after he had told the truth. Later in Just Mercy, after all the evidence had all but proven Mr. McMillian as innocent, the white prosecutor still pushed to have him put on death row. Mr.Stevenson then confronts the prosecutor and says, “Your job is not to get a conviction, it’s to achieve justice,” (01:56:30). This statement exemplifies how the white judicial system thought in a backwards way when trying a black person to a white one. The law enforcement and judicial system allowed their suspicions of black people to drive their prejudice and reasoning when it came to determining whether they were innocent or guilty. From the front lines of law enforcement all the way up to the judge’s bench, black people were inherently wrong or guilty of something, even if there was no evidence or reason for them to be other than, in the eyes of the legal system, their skin.
2 thoughts on ““Ashamed To Live in a Land Where Justice is a Game””
One small correction: McMillan is played by Jamie Foxx, not Denzel Washington!
Great detail to support your explication of the similarities between the film version of Just Mercy and Lee’s novel. A couple of these strike me as worthy of further discussion. First, the placement of Robert E. Lee’s name in the film is extra crazy because it’s factual, not literary – that’s a real person with that name! Or I guess it’s not accurate to say it isn’t “literary,” because the appearance of that name in the film does a particular kind of work *even if* it’s also factually accurate. I’d argue that Stevenson is still making use of the historical irony toward a particular end! I was also struck by the resonance of that one line from the film “Mad dogs ought to die” – because of course there’s a mad dog scene in the novel. Would love to have heard you think through that point of overlap more extensively.