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Presumed guilty

(Warner Bros.)

Movie

Presumed guilty

Northern lawyer goes to the South to fight corrupt judicial system in historically based legal drama Just Mercy

Each generation looks into its rearview mirror to see stories of past racial injustices it must tell. In 1960, Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird, a story revolving around a black man falsely accused of rape in 1930s Alabama. The actual murders of three civil rights activists in 1964 was the loose basis for Mississippi Burning, nominated in 1989 for multiple Oscars. 

Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear: The real-life case in Just Mercy centers on an African American man who didn’t see justice after his undeserved murder conviction until 1993.

Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a black resident of Monroe County, Ala., faces the death penalty for the murder of an 18-year-old white woman. A convicted felon’s dubious testimony put him there, and local law enforcement officials have suppressed exculpatory evidence.

“You’re guilty from the moment you’re born,” McMillian says of the legal system’s treatment of many blacks in the South.

Into this hostile environment walks Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a young African American graduate of Harvard Law School. He establishes a tiny nonprofit called Equal Justice Institute, dedicated to representing the poor on death row. He takes up the cases of six defendants—at least one wrongly convicted, others inappropriately sentenced. The more Stevenson digs, the more he enrages powerful people.

Stevenson’s education and profession mean nothing to the county’s sheriff and district attorney. They see a black man who doesn’t know his place. When police lights flash in Stevenson’s rearview mirror during a late-night drive down a country road, he experiences firsthand the same helplessness and humiliation that many poor individuals, especially people of color, have endured at the hands of those sworn to protect the rule of law.

Viewers feel this same helplessness—at least for two riveting hours. (The film is rated PG-13 mainly for explicit language.) The abuses of power roll in relentlessly, as conspirators and their dupes seem to cut off every avenue of relief. You wonder: How can people be so cruel? Is turning a blind eye our default reaction to injustice?

Foxx and Jordan give career performances, as does Tim Blake Nelson, who plays a criminal regretting his false testimony against McMillian but fearing the consequences of coming clean.

Although the film makes little of Stevenson’s church background, the real Bryan Stevenson told me he’s a Christian who finds inspiration in Micah 6:8: “The Scriptures tell us to … advocate for the poor, disfavored, excluded, and condemned.” He’s working for the day when Americans no longer look in their rearview mirrors and see so many stories of injustice.