Just Mercy begins the new year with the latest African embodiment of the American mantra: “if you work hard, you can achieve impossible things.”
The film, based off Bryan Stevenson’s book of the same title, delineates an abridged version of the trials and tribulations encountered and overcome by a young lawyer who confronts a corrupt system. Stevenson actualizes a burden too often placed upon black shoulders, the burden to correct what should have never been able to manifest in the first place. My criticisms do not undercut Stevenson’s incomparable contribution to rectifying one of the most horrid systemic robberies—the theft of physical freedom, but I do seek to underscore an anti-black framing integral to the intellectualism we, as black people, must afford our collective identity
An anti-black agenda illuminates in the film’s ground-laying stage that presents the vindicating white woman in juxtaposition to the wrongfully accused black man. This black male-white female alignment proves ever-present with Stevenson himself who employs Eva Ansley, a white woman, at his practice, the Equal Justice Initiative. Ansley, while occupying a supporting role, posits white alliance as a necessary for black progress.
The film also embodies this juxtaposition with scrutinizing gazes from white women that suggest empathy for the black assailant, and frequent references to To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee. These small but significant details delineate a purposeful alignment that depicts McMillian and Stevenson as mockingbirds freed by the white female ally, be it Harper Lee, or Eva Ansley.
The film’s white female inclusion affords it a feminist undertone that misplaces the white woman as a key ingredient in the black stride toward civil rights. This presence is important to note because yet again black people are too often cast as supporting characters in their own narratives.
This “shared” narrative, which posits a shared experience that has yet to manifest, betrays that not only is America unwilling to afford blacks economical reparations, but consistently refuses blacks the necessary authority in their own archive.
Things brings me to Herbert Richardson, the film’s fallen hero. Richardson, a black man drafted at eighteen, returned a changed man. This change greatly affected his ability to function. Additionally, Richardson’s formal crime reflected the crimes against him. Stevenson would appeal Richardson’s conviction, but the law would stand firm on its unjust decision to execute Richardson.
The same country that took Richardson’s service and sanity, took his life. His execution proved impossibly difficult to watch, but it proved even more difficult to look at a real-life photo of Richardson displayed at the end of the film. The photo captured Richardson handcuffed by a prison window.
To see a black man juxtaposed to physical freedom, embodies the very predicament American representation affords the black narrative.
The facts are there. The depictions possess a poignancy that may encompass some or all of the presented content. These films provide a visual text that affords viewers a gaze into truth but holds the full picture hostage. Richardson, in the referenced photo, depicts this hostage, which complicates the film’s implicit motif: “if you work hard, you can achieve impossible things.”
Richardson worked hard, and was struck by man-made lightening that killed him. Stevenson worked hard, and watched the entire thing. Though these examples illustrate the documented, the black archive personifies an undocumented record inundated with hard work that paid off for someone else. This archive exposes the ideology that ” hard work remains crucial to achieving the impossible” as merely an American fallacy operating as truth.
Walter “John Dee” McMillian, freed from physical freedom to live with intractable psychological and emotional scars, holds hands with Richardson to betray the American penitentiary system as encompassing the hard work implemented to propagate the myth of the black male criminality. This is the myth that fills cages with humans treated worse than most animals.
So while I commend the brilliant performances delivered by the film’s leading and supporting black cast, Just Mercy, remains among the plethora of films that mutate the black archive in a merciless portrayal of men made mules by a white supremacist manifold.