Review: Just Mercy

Knowing that a film is portraying real people and the situations they face immediately increases its impact for me. Just Mercy is based on a book by lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson, who, after graduating from Harvard Law School moved to Alabama to offer legal defense to those who could not afford representation and to those wrongly convicted.

One of his early cases involved Walter “Johnny D” McMillian, movingly portrayed by Jamie Foxx, who was on death row for a murder that he did not commit. Having just arrived in Alabama, Bryan Stevenson, played earnestly by Michael B. Jordan, delves into the case and finds ample evidence that shows Johnny D could not have murdered the 18-year-old young woman. It also quickly becomes apparent that race was a huge factor in McMillian’s conviction. The victim was white and McMillian is black.

It also quickly becomes apparent that Attorney Stevenson, who is also black, will encounter racial obstacles in his professional life and harassment by law enforcement officers and the legal establishment, but he continues to do all he can to seek justice for his clients, their families, and their community.

I have long been opposed to the death penalty. I remember writing an essay against it when I was still in grammar school. While my opposition centered around the moral belief that killing a person is wrong and the Constitutional grounds that the death penalty constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment,” this film illustrates some of the other reasons to oppose the death penalty, such as systemic racism in the legal system, incompetent defense attorneys, and lack of recognition and treatment of mental illness.  There is also the horrible possibility of executing an innocent person.

One of the most moving things about the film for me was the support that the men on death row gave one another. Even though they couldn’t often see each other because the walls between them were solid, they would shout to each other to exchange information and offer words of comfort. They would use the bars at the front of the cell and a metal cup to let another man know they are thinking about him.

The film is rated PG-13 and would be too emotionally difficult for children. There are sequences that I found emotionally difficult, especially the one execution that is shown. While the execution itself is not shown on screen, the lead-up to it is heartbreaking.

I always stay to watch the credits of films. Even if you usually do not, you will want to stay through the first part of the credits which gives updates on the people that we meet during the film. It is a final reminder that we are dealing with the lives of real people, what happened to them, and the implications of those events that continue into our present and future as a country.

A note from Joanne:  This is the fifth(!) film I have seen this month. I have never been to a theater so many times in a two week-period. Those of you who are new to Top of JC’s Mind should know that this is not usually a movie review blog. You just happened to catch me at a time when movies are swirling in my mind.
*****
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Francis at Congress

This morning, I listened to Pope Francis’s address to the joint meeting of Congress with a group of other Catholics.

It was a bit strange to see the formality of the proceedings which looked very much like the annual State of the Union speech given by the President. Besides the Representatives and Senators, there were most of the Cabinet Secretaries and only four members of the Supreme Court, which was disappointing, given that three of the six Catholic justices chose not to attend.

A few things that stood out for me from Francis’s address:

  • He very carefully made the speech as relatable to people in the United States as he could. 
    Even though it was a long speech, he spoke in English, a language which he knows but in which he is not fluent. It was obvious that he understood well US history, values, and sensibilities, and the speech was organized around the ideals and example of four Americans, President Abraham Lincoln, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. While the first two would be familiar to everyone, the later two may not be, each being a 20th century convert to Catholicism. Day is known for her work among the marginalized and for her dedication to social justice and human dignity. Merton is known for his capacity to enter into dialogue and integrate seemingly contradictory viewpoints.
  • Francis very strongly advocated for ending the death penalty worldwide. The United States is one of the few countries left in the world that exacts killing of those convicted of crimes.  While there are many people who oppose it in the United States, executions are still taking place. Some states have abolished it, but others have not. Pope Francis described it as an affront to the dignity of the person and said that the goal of prison was to foster hope and rehabilitation. The US bishops are currently renewing their efforts toward abolition of the death penalty across the country. As an opponent of the death penalty since childhood, I was grateful to hear such a strong message against it.
  • Francis was especially bold in addressing the issue of arms sales.  When Francis was speaking about Thomas Merton, he spoke about bridging divides and how good political leaders seize opportunities for dialogue and peace with openness and optimism. He called for an end to armed conflict and then went on to say that profit gained from selling weapons to those who will use them against people is “blood money.” Given how many of the arms in the world originate in the United States, this was a challenging thing to say. I do agree with Francis on this, but the Congress was pretty quiet in reaction.
  • Francis most frequently mentioned the common good as a value that is both spiritual/religious and civic.  Francis touched on many themes, including immigrants, the treatment of the First Nations, freedom of thought and expression, combatting fundamentalism and polarization of all kinds, human dignity and justice, the Golden Rule, care of creation, family life, and giving hope to the younger generations. He mentioned over and over how government, businesspeople, and the society as a whole must co-operate to bring about justice and promote the common good.

I say, “Amen!”