Let put it in plain and simple terms – some films are relevant.
Just Mercy is one.
Well-acted and directed, this 2019 film is based on the real life story of a person serving time on death row although he isn’t guilty of the crime he is accused of. It offers insight into the trumped up charges (how they were engineered) and the legal battle that followed to get him released, including the intimidating atmosphere lawyers endure to ensure justice. The film also informs you of how in many cases, death row became a parking spot for people dealt with unjustly by the system. Framed and with their appeals thwarted repeatedly by a prejudiced system, they languish in prison. It is the exceptional who hold themselves together in one piece.
The story is based in Alabama, US. For the contemporary viewer, it acquires impact given the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement and the simple fact that society anywhere on the planet is never far from the edge of injustice. It is a grim film particularly relevant for geographies that have seen or continue to see the type of forces portrayed in the plot. Above all, it tells why the law exists, what a lawyer means and that deep down, even the wrong doers tend to reflect and correct, however reluctantly that may be. But the price of such reluctance is steep. Innocents die while others rot in prison for years, for no fault of theirs except as the prosecution sometimes says (and gets away with): he had all the appearance of a guilty individual or all the signs of being a criminal. That dependence on perception conveniently overshadows the diligent lawyer’s question: where is the evidence?
Life in lockdown has stripped away my appetite for special effects and comic book heroes. They remind too much of excess. On the other hand, simple, bare films featuring people and their lives have been attracting as idiom for the times. It was that instinct, which made me click on Just Mercy when it showed up on Amazon Prime. It didn’t disappoint. And I didn’t mention that comic books-angle for nothing. The lead character – that of Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer – is played by Michael B. Jordan who has previously starred in Fantastic Four and Black Panther. Anchoring his legal firm – the Equal Justice Initiative – is Eva Ansley, portrayed by Brie Larson, known best for her role as Captain Marvel. Here, you see these actors for what they are genuinely capable of. Acclaimed for Ray, remembered for Django Unchained and with a detour to the Electro of Amazing Spiderman-2 in between, Jamie Fox plays Walter “ Johnny D” McMillian, the innocent man stuck in death row.
This is a film worth watching for what it is and to also reflect a bit on the many things the human being can be, ranging from the one who frames to the one who saves.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)