The film Just Mercy tells the story of a young lawyer named Bryan Stevens and the case of Jonnie D, an innocent African American man on death row. Jonnie D was falsely accused of killing a young white woman and sentenced to death. After reviewing Jonnie D’s case, Stevens quickly realizes that Jonnie D is innocent, and he tries absolutely everything to overcome the oppression in the current legal system and fights for Jonnie D’s innocence. Just Mercy illustrates that slavery does not exist in the traditional sense but in the form of sytematic opression. The film takes place in Alabama in 1989. Slavery has obviously been abolished for many years, but the civil rights movement just passed, and racisim and bigotry is still very much present in the rural south. Slavery exists systematically because once in the legal system African American citizens are treated unequally, abused, and stripped of inherent human rights. Just Mercy establishes that a racial hierarchy is still present in Alabama. The town’s sheriff, the judge in the first retrial hearing, and many citizens are very much racist. The hierarchy is able to manipulate the system so easily because they are the ones enforcing the laws. Several examples are seen such as false accusations, coerced testimonies, denied appeals, and ignorance. Bryan Stevens has to overcome all of these obstacles systematically in order to prove Jonnie D’s obvious innocence.
One of the biggest symbols of systematic slavery occurs in one of the first scenes of the movie. Bryan Stevens is driving to the prison where his clients reside, and on his way, Stevens encounters about ten or twelve African American inmates participating in manual labor under the supervision of a white guard who is armed. If you take a screenshot of this scene and observe its imagery, it very closley resembles slavery from the 1800s. All the inmates were participating in harsh manual labor which is something that is unusual in prisons. The chains on all the prisoners are very prominent and noticeable symbolizing the slavery that is supposed to be abolished. The guard is positioned on a horse and appears to be looking down on the inmates. The images symbolizes the power dynamic where the prisoners are subject to the will of the white man. If a photo of this scene was taken and the context of Just Mercy was taken out, one might think this is a picture from the 1800s, and that is the point. This is not the 1800s and slavery does not “exist,” yet there is clear imagery that African Americans are the subject of inhumane behavior. The scene takes place at the prison where sytematic slavery is able to facillitate, and instead of rehabilition, abuse is taken place. This scene sets the stage for the many examples of systematic slavery to be seen in the movie.
It is an inherent human right to have representation in court, and nobody disputes that claim, yet this is not practiced justly. Upon arrival at the prison, Bryan Stevens talks to his many clients, and all his clients say the same thing about their past representation. They all say their past representation did the bare minimum and did not do a proper job. One client explains that he has only talked to his lawyer three times and he is a death row inmate, and another inmate states that he felt alone in his courtroom despite the “presence” of his lawyer. One lawyer defending a death row inmate was even for the death penalty. There are two words that describe this representation: inadequate and negligence. These lawyers are not doing their jobs which enables the system to treat African Americans unfairly. This representation is inadequate because they are not doing everything they can. They are not informing their clients properly, they are not doing everything they can, they are not fighting for justice. As explained by Jonnie D’s family, these lawyers care about just getting their paycheck and nothing else. Bryan Stevens does not charge them a penny which is a reason why they trust him so much. They practice negligence because there is more they can do and they do not do it. They do not exercise every option or inform their client of every option. Herb’s story is a good example of this. Herb is diagnosed with PTSD clearly and did not mean to kill anyone. It is said by multiple characters that Herb is sick and needs help. No lawyer besides Bryan Stevens tried to help Herb and his situation. These lawyers did not file an appeal, try to get Herb help, or plead mental illness. There were many options to potentially get Herb help and a better situation; however, he was left alone and subject to a racist system. If representation is inadequate and lawyers practice negligence, should it count as proper representation? Absolutely not because they are not being treated equally which causes them to be victims of the legal system, and this negligence and inadequacy fuels this system.