Unfortunately, Just Mercy Was Based on a True Story

This film about one of the most egregious modern cases of racism and injustice mostly sticks to the facts.

One thing I didn’t like about Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018) was that it invented events to make its antagonists more menacing than they really were. It’s a habit in Hollywood to insert or amplify racism in historical films, which is weird because there are plenty of actual historical examples of racism to make movies about.

Case in point: Just Mercy (2019), written by Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham and directed by Cretton, based on the book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Just Mercy follows the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who was wrongly convicted of the 1986 murder of a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama and sent to death row. Years later, attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) successfully appealed McMillian’s conviction and won his freedom.

McMillian, who was having a very public affair with a white woman named Karen Kelly, was hosting a fish fry at his home with his wife, Minnie (Karan Kendrick), surrounded by about a dozen witnesses, when the murder occurred. Despite this, Sheriff Tom Tate (Michael Harding) arrested him for the crime. And despite not yet being convicted, he was sent to death row while awaiting trial.

Judge Robert E. Lee Key, Jr. (yes, that was actually his name) moved the trial to a different county where it would have a majority white jury. The judge overrode the jury’s decision of life imprisonment and imposed the death penalty. McMillian sat on Alabama’s death row from 1988 to 1993, when the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled he had been wrongfully convicted.

According to Historyvshollywood.com, Just Mercy accurately follows these events, with some revisionism to soften Walter McMillian’s rougher edges. McMillian’s conviction has to be one of the most egregious examples of legal injustice in the past 40 years. After his release, McMillian filed a civil lawsuit against the officials who prosecuted him, which was settled out of court.

The sheriff, district attorney, and judge who persecuted McMillian were clearly motivated by racial hatred. Sheriff Tate reportedly told him “I don’t give a damn what you say or what you do. I don’t give a damn what your people say either. I’m going to put twelve people on a jury who are going to find your goddamn black ass guilty.”

Sheriff’s deputies coerced career criminal Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson) into saying he helped McMillian commit the crime, but later, McMillian’s lawyers found a recording of Myers protesting his earlier statement, saying he didn’t even know McMillian. Several witnesses at trial later recanted their testimony and admitted they had lied.

Police and prosecutors are not perfect; they often get cases wrong, misinterpret evidence, or arrest suspects on slim evidence, but this was different. Police knew, based on Myers’ testimony and dozens of eyewitnesses who were with McMillian at his fish fry, that McMillian couldn’t have committed the murder. There was no reason for this miscarriage of justice other than finding a scapegoat, a black man, on which to pin the crime.

Critics have, well, criticized this film for being like a “movie of the week,” a rote retelling of events by an A-list cast going through the motions, but I think it’s refreshing for a movie of this caliber to stick so closely to the facts. You don’t need Hollywood revisionism to tell a compelling story about racial injustice in America. I’m glad they got this one right.

Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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