By Ron Wynn
It’s not a superhero fantasy, romantic comedy or particularly holiday-oriented production. But one film anyone with an interest in either history, politics or Black culture should see as soon as possible is “Just Mercy,” a film that chronicles the life of an extraordinary individual and freedom fighter. Attorney Bryan Stevenson has spent decades fighting for those oppressed and wrongly imprisoned. His best-selling book “Just Mercy” detailed some amazing true stories. But given how few people even read what qualifies as a best seller, there’s a very good chance many folks still aren’t aware of who he is or what he’s done.
That’s what makes the current film “Just Mercy,” which opened Christmas Day, so important. It stars Michael B. Jordan in the title role, covering a couple of key cases in his 30-year career. It also chronicles the creation of the nonprofit law firm and human rights organization the Equal Justice Initiative, while spotlighting two of his most vital cases involving Walter McMillan and Herbert Richardson, portrayed by Jamie Foxx and Rob Morgan.
McMillian was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a white teenage girl as punishment for having an affair with a white woman. Richardson was a Vietnam War veteran who struggled with PTSD. He put a bomb on a woman’s porch that exploded and killed a young girl. Stevenson fought for both men to be removed from death row.
The film also shows Stevenson explaining to his mother why he chose to represent mostly poor Black men on Alabama’s death row after earning a Harvard Law degree, and being in a position where he could have earned far more money representing Wall Street firms. A big reason was an incident where Stevenson found himself wrongly arrested and imprisoned, then subjected to a strip search.
Stevenson has won relief for over 135 people wrongfully convicted on death row, and won a number of Supreme court cases. The most recent was a ruling this year that protects people in prison suffering from dementia from death row. He was also behind a 2012 ruling banning mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children under 18.
In addition to his work with the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson is currently a professor at New York University’s School of Law. The Equal Justice Initiative has recently founded two new landmarks in Montgomery, Alabama. They are the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the nation’s only monument to lynching victims.