Updated: Feb 8, 2021
By Sonali Deliwala
“Just Mercy” tells the story of Bryan Stevenson, a criminal justice lawyer who moves to Alabama to represent wrongly convicted individuals on death row. The movie follows the case of Walter McMillian, who spent six years on death row for a crime he did not commit.
The theater hummed with the chatter of social justice advocates, NGO leaders, civil rights lawyers, public defenders, council members, and members of the criminal justice and reentry community. Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy, published in 2015, and his famous 2012 TED talk had identified him as one of the foremost criminal justice lawyers and human rights activists in the country. By the fall when I attended his talk at Acadia University, Mr. Stevenson’s message was garnering national attention, winning acclaimed awards, and receiving rave reviews — I couldn’t stop smiling to myself as I made my way into the crowded theater.
Clutching the pack of Kleenex and program booklet that I had been offered upon arriving at the venue, I took a seat in the middle of the theater, behind the row reserved for government officials. I flipped open the booklet, created by the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, and was immediately confronted with the statistic, “Philadelphia sentences more children to spend the rest of their lives in prison than any other city on the planet.” Other facts painted the grim reality of criminal justice for youth in Philadelphia — Philadelphia sentenced a staggering 300 Juvenile Lifers. In Pennsylvania, youth of color are ten times more likely to be sentenced to life without parole than white youth. And yet, while the numbers were appalling and heartbreaking, the night was defined by a hopeful vision for the future.
First, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman spoke about his position on the Board of Pardons, and then unexpectedly called up two members of the audience to speak with him. He introduced them as Naomi and George. Naomi had spent 37 years in prison for a crime she did not commit, and George had spent 31 years in prison for a murder committed by his friend. The lieutenant governor was making a clear comparison to the film we were about to see. He remarked that Naomi and George had become fierce advocates for the reentry community, and he had actually recruited them to work on commutations applications. He added that they have become the driving force and inspiration behind his movement to ensure equal justice for all.
Then, City Council member Helen Gym talked about her own “Bryan Stevenson moment,” as she called it. Philadelphia is home to horrifying “treatment facilities,” for-profit institutions that cater to “troubled youth.” Councilwoman Gym tried to approach a Philadelphia judge about the legitimization of one of these facilities, and was effectively shown the door. She believes our criminal justice system doesn’t want to talk about where it’s failed, but when transparency is lacking, that’s when you know you’re looking in the right place. Last year, she created a task force to closely examine and challenge the authority of these privatized facilities, many of which have been accused of abuse, violence, and isolation of youth, especially after the suffocation of 17-year-old David Hess in 2016 at Wordsworth Academy.
These powerful figures’ stories, heard before we watched the movie, announced the message for the night: that real change and progress is not only possible, but being achieved now. Indeed, as Bryan Stevenson says, “We are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” The night’s program was, of course, predicated on acknowledging and reflecting on our broken criminal justice system, but moreover focused on how people are making progress to change this legacy—in the hopes that this country, this state, and this city are also more than the worst things we’ve ever done.
Before we knew it, the lights dimmed and the theater screen expanded across the entire wall.
There were moments when I felt like all of us in the audience were holding our breath together, gasping together, shaking our heads in disbelief together. The film is gripping and emotional, so artfully created that the audience experiences every victory and loss faced by Bryan, Walter and the other death row inmates.
Bryan, played by Michael B. Jordan, has what the comedian and writer Hasan Minhaj calls the “audacity of equality”: He is a Harvard-educated lawyer with a vision of equal justice for death row inmates. But almost everyone Bryan interacts with in Monroeville, Alabama, believes that is impossible, and warns him to adjust his expectations accordingly. When Bryan meets Walter McMillian for the first time on Alabama death row, Walter, played by Jamie Foxx, bitterly remarks that “the only suit they want to see you in is mine.”
The film captures the infuriating norms of systemic injustice through Bryan’s interactions with the inmates as well as the stories of his death row cases. Even though a dozen of Walter’s family members and friends witnessed him at a fish fry during the day of the crime, their testimony wasn’t even considered; instead, Ralph Myers, a white man who delivers a wildly incoherent testimony, is the star witness in the state’s case against Walter. It is later found out that Ralph Myers made up this testimony because he was pressured by the police to incriminate Walter.
All of this first baffles and frustrates Bryan, but he knows he cannot lash out angrily at the system — instead, he is patient and firm, relentless yet polite to the infuriating Sheriff and District Attorney. We see his frustration, though, in the curling of his lip and indignant protest when he is strip-searched before entering the death row facility.
An overarching theme of brokenness emerges throughout the movie — policing, courts, prison, and the law itself, are all broken. A particularly heartbreaking scene in the movie depicts a death row execution, showing Walter and Ray’s fellow inmate, Herbert, being put to death via the electric chair — guards shaving his hair, strapping him into the chair, and setting up chairs in the viewing room. This is when Bryan realizes that the brokenness of the system isn’t just a sad state of affairs. Instead, he begins to think on a much larger scale, saying that “the opposite of poverty is not wealth, but justice.”
Herbert’s execution further fuels Bryan’s efforts to free Walter, and Walter’s eventual exoneration in 1993 is a huge triumph for the newly founded Equal Justice Initiative. But the movie’s director and producers are careful to focus the final note of this movie not on this single victory, but the larger, overarching problems in the criminal justice system.
Just Mercy has become more than a book or a movie.
It’s the idea that freedom and justice and equality are incomplete projects, ideals that society’s privileged take for granted.
It’s the acknowledgement of the grim reality and history of how this country has treated its most vulnerable, poor and marginalized.
It’s a movement to become involved in the quest to bend “the moral arc of justice,” as Bryan Stevenson says.
Sonali Deliwala is a student leader for #VoteThatJawn. She's worked with #VoteThatJawn since the 2018 midterm elections, when she took Professor Cary's Nonfiction Now writing course. Sonali is very passionate about criminal justice reform and fighting economic inequality. She's also a junior at Penn studying Economics and Political Science with a minor in Creative Writing. See sonalideliwala.com for more.