‘Just Mercy’ on quest to make world a better place

January 4, 2020

As a lifelong Delawarean, I know there are countless aspects of the Small Wonder of which residents can be proud. To that long list, you can add lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson, whose early career gets the big-screen treatment in the film “Just Mercy.”

Stevenson is portrayed by one of film’s biggest stars, Michael B. Jordan, who also served as producer. The story covers the Milton native’s early law career and the influential death-row case that was the basis for his 2014 bestselling book that shares the film’s name.

Fresh out of law school in 1989, Stevenson heads to Alabama to help Walter McMillian (played by Jamie Foxx), a poor black man who spent six years on death row for a murder he clearly did not commit, and who was imprisoned on sketchy evidence from a racist white sheriff and an indifferent district attorney.

He lands in the town of Monroeville, which proudly flaunts that it is the home of Harper Lee and the setting for “To Kill A Mockingbird,” yet seems to be repeating the same injustices that served as inspiration for that novel. And the sad irony is that the film is opening just as real-life prisoner Curtis Flowers, a black man, is released from death row in Mississippi, having spent 20-plus years battling for his freedom after being put away under similarly flimsy circumstances.

“Mercy” does not apply, nor does it need, flash. Its strengths are in its harrowing story, brought forth by a reserved, textured Jordan and an equally effective Foxx. Jordan, who has brought confident swagger to lead roles in “Creed” and “Black Panther,” here relies on steely stoicism in the face of aggressive bigotry. Helping Jordan is “Short Term 12” director Destin Daniel Cretton, who also serves as the film’s co-writer. (Cretton’s lead in that film, Brie Larson, also has a small role here.)

And while “Mercy” zeroes in on McMillian’s case, it widens to look at the death penalty by electric chair and the question of whether or not a government deserves to kill its own people, especially when, according to most recent numbers, one in 25 inmates on death row is likely innocent.

Cretton keeps the film from exploring the more sensational aspects of the story, letting Netflix handle that for its multiple true-crime series. But he does not turn away when we witness the final moments of a man en route to the electric chair, second by agonizing second.

“Mercy,” like its real-life lead, is soft-spoken and succinct, and it’s impossible to look away. During a time in which our screens are littered with otherworldly, cape-wearing crime-fighters, it’s refreshing to see a film devoted to actual superheroes and their quest to make the world a better place for all.

Local screening of “Just Mercy”

The Movies at Midway hosted a special Friends and Family screening of Bryan Stevenson's film "Just Mercy"  on Dec. 26, which was attended by Stevenson himself.

"It was wonderful to share the new ‘Just Mercy’ film with folks in Sussex County, Delaware. I saw a lot of old friends and family, and was so moved to see people respond to the film with such enthusiasm," Stevenson said. "It was also very meaningful to screen the film at the Movies at Midway theater where my dad worked for so many years. With family in the area, I still feel very connected to the Cape community and the community where I grew up. It's incredibly affirming to have folks from my home community supporting the work I do now."


  • Rob is the head of the English and Communications Department at Delaware Technical Community College, where he teaches film. He is also one of the founders of the Rehoboth Beach Film Society. Email him at

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