I had no idea this stuff was so recent,” a friend whispered as the credits rolled. We had just watched Just Mercy, the film based on lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson’s 2014 memoir.
Both the film and the book chronicle Stevenson’s early years fighting for adequate legal representation for the poor and marginalized. Stevenson is a Harvard–educated lawyer who chose to forgo a cushy career in favor of working for the Southern Center for Human Rights doing death penalty defense work. After Congress eliminated their funding, Stevenson started the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that provides legal services to the poor and wrongfully convicted. The film focuses on the central story from Stevenson’s memoir: the fight to overturn the conviction of Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian, a man wrongfully convicted of the murder of a young woman and sentenced to capital punishment in 1986. Stevenson fought to overturn the conviction in 1992–1993.
My friend’s comment highlights one of the central themes Just Mercy artfully communicates: the power of formative narratives to shape our lives. One such story has shaped many white Americans’ perception of their nation: we have a regrettable history of racism, but it is behind us now. Racism was dealt with, and we are free of any lingering effects.Our apathy toward racial injustice is partially rooted in an insufficient understanding of the family of God.
This frequent tendency to recognize injustice in the past as distant and resolved is powerfully represented in the film. Two different times while Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) is visiting the district attorney’s office to begin his fight to free McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a white person tells him he should visit the local To Kill a Mockingbird museum. The DA who spends most of the film fighting against a fair trial for McMillian ends his meeting with Stevenson by encouraging him to visit the museum, “one of the great civil rights landmarks of the South.” We are never as far removed from the sins of our past as we’d like to think, nor as immune to repeating them.
At one point in Stevenson’s fight for justice, sheriff Thomas Tate (who joined the DA in fighting to prevent McMillian’s release) chastises Stevenson for the narrative he assumes Stevenson has: that Monroeville is full of racist cops that he and his Harvard education are valiantly fighting. On a certain level, he isn’t wrong: Stevenson has witnessed the segregation and racism in the town, he recognizes the institutional pressure he is fighting against, and he identifies with the local community who feel “guilty from the moment you’re born.” The problem is that Tate is ignorant of his own narrative: he is protecting “his people” (the white part of town) against someone who fits his (racist) assumptions about who looks guilty.
Here’s where Just Mercy does something subtle yet powerful: it depicts Stevenson’s faith as its own controlling narrative. In a context and cultural climate where Christians often rail against Hollywood’s tendency to deemphasize the faith of real or fictional characters, Just Mercy keeps these elements intact. The film does not do what many explicitly Christian movies do, centering the propositional truths of the faith and including scenes of preaching or evangelizing to make sure the point isn’t lost in the narrative. Instead, it consistently allows the faith of Stevenson and many of the death row inmates to provide the motivation and context for their justice-seeking work.
In the scene that introduces us to Stevenson, he bonds with a death row inmate over their time growing up in choir in AME churches, singing and playing the piano. “God is good,” the man says. “All the time,” responds Stevenson. One of the first things we learn about Stevenson is that he has been formed in the context of the church, a biographical fact that will take tangible form throughout the film. The inmate he was meeting with is battered by the guard who comes to return him to his cell, and when Stevenson protests, the man begins singing:
I’m pressing on, the upward way
New heights I’m gaining, every day
Still praying as, I’m onward bound
Lord, plant my feet on Higher Ground.
Later in the film, Stevenson prays with one inmate right before his execution, then walks over to the observation room to watch as the man is killed. At the inmate’s request, “The Old Rugged Cross” plays during his execution. In perhaps the most powerful and certainly the most disturbing scene in the film, we see the electric chair wrack the man’s body via the reflection of the glass separating him from the audience assembled in the adjoining room. We are spared seeing his execution directly, but the faces of those witnessing it and the sickening thud of his body wrenching against the restraints is enough. During this horrifying moment, these words play over the scratchy prison PA system:
To the old rugged cross I will ever be true
It’s shame and reproach gladly bear
Then he’ll call me someday to my home far away
Where his glory forever I’ll share.
In a story full of Christian references, nothing could be more explicit—and jarring—than this one: the horrific reality of capital punishment in an unjust system, displayed by both the man in the electric chair and the man on “the old rugged cross.”
This execution is one defeat, and a second one comes not much later, when McMillian is not granted a retrial, even after the key witness recants his entire testimony in court. Reflecting on the crushing defeat at the edge of a lake with colleague Eva Ansley, he laments that no one wants to talk about the history of racism surrounding them: the slave auctions and lynchings that happened not far from where they sit. Stevenson keeps saying that “no one wants to talk about it,” a sentiment evidenced by the sheriff’s earlier ridicule of his narrative of systemic racism. There is a powerful self-justifying narrative at play that can uplift a great “civil rights landmark” one moment and pretend that the very history that produced that landmark has no remaining effect today.
The turning point in the film comes not long after this defeat, as Stevenson feels the weight of this particular injustice and the larger systemic injustice that supports it. He is overcome with reasons to give up, to believe that this is “just the way things are,” and to accept the inevitability of injustice.
This turning point, where Stevenson gains the courage and conviction he needs to keep fighting the seemingly victorious evil around him, happens in a church worship service. Unlike the lake scene, no words are spoken. The grief, fear, and pain are evident in Stevenson’s face. Yet there is context for his struggle: a community praising God, reminding themselves of truth, gaining the strength and spiritual resources to go back out into the world and face the forces of evil and injustice.
Whether the filmmakers intended it or not, Just Mercy is a powerful depiction of what righteous political theology should look like: the people of God, shaped by his redemptive story and strengthened by their communal worship, doing work in the world that reflects theological truth. At the end of the film, Stevenson is testifying in Congress with McMillian about his case, and he articulates two of the most significant theological truths we need to (re)learn today:
First, he says that a nation is not judged by how it treats the powerful or wealthy, but “the character of a nation is judged by how we treat the poor, disfavored, condemned.” This idea is not one we can reasonably ascertain without the truth of Scripture, for it is here that we learn that nations are, in fact, judged. There is a righteous judge who holds people to account, especially for how they as a community treat the most vulnerable among them.
Second: “We all need justice, we all need mercy, and perhaps we all need some measure of unmerited grace.” Christians are quick to condemn the excesses and immorality of Hollywood (much of which is deserved!) but we can also be so hardened that we miss how radical this statement is. At the very end of a film, one of the last lines the main character says is that we all share a need for unmerited grace.
Just Mercy depicts some of Stevenson’s important work. It shows the harrowing experiences of many death row inmates and highlights the role that systemic and generational injustice have on our criminal justice system. It also gives Christians a glimpse of what it looks like to live distinctly Christian lives for the sake of the world. Stevenson’s work is motivated by theological truths, he is strengthened by a suffering and praising community of God, and he refuses to give up on work that appears hopeless by earthly standards.
Right before the church scene, Ansley says to Stevenson: “When your family is hurting, you’re hurting.” She’s talking about Stevenson’s emotional connection to the case, but in the context of the following scene, it should be a stinging reminder to white Christians that our apathy toward racial injustice is partially rooted in an insufficient understanding of the family of God. After decades of a segregated church, we have not been formed to see the suffering of black Christians as suffering we should bear, and their burdens as burdens we should carry. We have not truly felt the weight of obligation upon us to learn from them, fight for them, weep and rejoice with them. We have not been formed in the context of a lamenting community, with the eyes to see injustice and the theological impetus to fight it.
I hope many Christians recognize the theological depth and prominence of faith in Just Mercy. I also hope that white Christians will recognize the theological depth and prominence of faith in the black church in America, and will seek to learn from our brothers and sisters who often have much richer resources for political and social witness in the world.
The last scene of the entire film is a real clip from the release of Anthony Ray Hinton, one of the other death row inmates portrayed in the film. In the crowd of people surrounding Stevenson and Hinton, a woman cries out, “Thank you, Jesus; thank you, Lord!” Just Mercy should prompt Christians to renew this dual nature of our vocation on earth: praising God and seeking justice.