Film review: Just Mercy

by Don Franks

If you haven’t been to see it, “Just Mercy” is a hell of a movie.

It’s based on African American lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s book of the same name, about his struggles to reverse death sentences in Alabama. The film version homes in on one particular case, a black man cruelly and crudely framed for the killing of a young white woman.

A particular irony is that this murder and the false arrest for it take place in Monroeville, Alabama. Hometown of Harper Lee, writer of the anti-racist courtroom drama “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

Otherwise racist township authorities use the local Harper Lee museum as a tourist attraction.

Vivid depictions of vicious racism, dirt poverty, police terrorization of workers and an electric chair execution sustain a tense and moving drama.

Along with the courageous battle of Stevenson and his few white allies, two things from “Just Mercy” will stay long on my memory. The solidarity of the oppressed black community and the solidarity of death row prisoners toward one another.

That, and the fact that the scene is not, as it appears, from the early 1950s but the late 1980s. Today, long after abolition, parts of the USA are steeped in class-based racist violence. The extreme instance – race weighted capital punishment still hold sway in.

Here in New Zealand, state executions are currently illegal. An improvement, but not the only one required. In our country, Māori are 38% of people proceeded against by Police, 42% of people convicted, and 51% of people in prison. This despite Māori making up only approximately 16% of the New Zealand population.
Back in 2015, we ran a book review of Just Mercy; see here.