There’s a storytelling game that I play with my writing students called “Fortunately, Unfortunately.” It teaches them plotting and how setbacks and obstacles fuel the movement of every great story. “Just Mercy” is a profound, moving, and unforgettable story; it’s also a stellar example of “Fortunately, Unfortunately.”
The film, based on a real-life injustice, begins with “unfortunately.” It is 1987, and Walter MacMillian (Jamie Foxx in a low-key but potent performance), a playful black logger with his own business, is arrested for a murder he did not commit. In fact, he is put on death row for the crime, even though many people know he did not actually do it. The white Alabama prosecutors know this; he was arrested on a piece of coerced evidence they cooked up. And many black members of the community know this, because they all saw him at a party during the time when he was said to have committed the murder.
It’s harrowing to watch as these image bearers of God are continually dismissed, overlooked, and disbelieved. As one white friend of mine said, if one didn’t know this was based on a true story, it would have been hard to believe it really happened. However, to our black and brown brothers and sisters, this kind of treatment is business as usual. In this current era of racial reckoning, we are becoming more aware of how easy it is for a person of color to lose their freedom—or their life—because of deep racial injustice.
Fortunately, Walter has a keen legal mind on his side, his lawyer, Bryan Stevenson (an earnest, natural Michael B. Jordan). Fresh out of Harvard law school, Stevenson chooses to take on seemingly hopeless death row cases for little to no pay, because of his belief in justice. There are crushing setbacks along the way, and truly evil villains to vanquish, but also moments of hope and victory.
The most wrenching scene: a death row inmate and Vietnam vet (Rob Morgan), who blew up his victims in a fit of PTSD, is put to death by the state of Alabama. That scene is filmed in slow, agonizing motion, with almost documentary-style realism, and is very difficult to watch. My teenagers had lots of questions about the death penalty as we talked about the movie afterward. Who deserves to die and who does not? Does anyone really deserve to die at the hands of the state, when the state makes so many mistakes and there is such blatant racism at work?
Directed in a solid, sure-handed manner by Destin Daniel Cretton, “Just Mercy” compels, provokes, and shakes up the viewer’s assumptions about the justice system. Though it is not an overtly Christian movie, several of the real-life characters are believers, including Bryan Stevenson. The Christian viewer is reminded of Amos 5:24: "But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." Our eyes are open to the many unjust systems and prejudices faced by those whom God loves, and we are inspired anew to dismantle the “unfortunately” and be part of the “fortunately” in the lives of the oppressed. (Warner Bros.)