New Death Row Legal Drama ‘Just Mercy’ Calmly Highlights the Horrors of Injustice

Published on January 11, 2020

Back in 2018, WarnerMedia unveiled its company-wide policy outlining its commitment to diversity and inclusion in front of and behind the camera. Serving as the first production to fall under this policy, is the new death penalty legal drama, Just Mercy, a Warner Bros. Pictures release, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and starring Michael B. Jordan.

Jordan also serves as an executive producer on the film, which interestingly enough, Jordan’s agent Phillip Sun at WME, helped WarnerMedia to launch this policy.

The newly-implemented policy statement reads:

WarnerMedia companies, Warner Bros., HBO and Turner, have long been committed to diversity and inclusion as moral and business imperatives.  It is essential that our content and creative partners reflect the diversity of our society and the world around us.  Together with other production companies, networks, guilds, unions, talent agencies and others in the industry, we all must ensure there is greater inclusion of women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, those with disabilities and other underrepresented groups in greater numbers both in front of and behind the camera.

For our part, WarnerMedia pledges to use our best efforts to ensure that diverse actors and crew members are considered for film, television and other projects, and to work with directors and producers who also seek to promote greater diversity and inclusion in our industry.  To that end, in the early stages of the production process, we will engage with our writers, producers and directors to create a plan for implementing this commitment to diversity and inclusion on our projects, with the goal of providing opportunities for individuals from under-represented groups at all levels. And, we will issue an annual report on our progress.

The companies of WarnerMedia have a historic and proven commitment to diversity and inclusion.  But there is much more we can do, and we believe real progress can be made in the industry.  We will work with our partners in the entertainment community to make this commitment a reality.


The film is based on the true story of William “Johnny D.” McMillian, a pulpwood worker who’s arrested, convicted of murder, and sentenced to death row.

Centered around young defense attorney Bryan Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan, Stevenson yearns to appeal his murder conviction. Inspired by a memoir of the same name, the film also stars Jamie Foxx as McMillian, and Brie Larson. Larson plays Eva Ansley, an advocate for McMillian who worked with Stevenson. 

Watch It: If you want to see a heartfelt story that contains a sort of calm energy throughout and verbal exactness. 

Skip It: If you want to see a more brutal and action-based take on racism. This is first and foremost a legal drama. 

Though Just Mercy attacks the horrors of racism, bigotry and injustice, there’s a calm energy that courses throughout. It is, in fact, a legal drama, and such a tone perhaps warrants such calmness.

Bryan Stevenson is a young, Black attorney in the Deep South. Even in the 80s and up until the present, fear and ignorance towards those unlike themselves is shown. It’s a calm energy, arguably, that Stevenson needed to have for any sort of success. 

The Facts

In this role as a defense attorney, Jordan portrays Stevenson greatly. One may crave a sort of ferris wheel of emotion from Jordan, at times showing deep rage and frustration.

Yet, for his character to lose his cool in such circumstances would potentially spell defeat for his cause. Jordan does a fine job at portraying calmness, as his character courageously swims upstream against the forces of bigotry. 

In a supporting role, Brie Larson also gives a charming performance as a White woman in a tense neighborhood. That and she’s on the side of Stevenson and Jamie Foxx’s character “Johnny D.”

Her character, Eva, advocates for Johnny D’s release, in support of Stevenson’s cause. While her Southern accent for some might come across as just a bit distracting, she portrays a beautiful poise and determination in her character throughout the film. 

At over 130 minutes, Just Mercy does begin to feel its runtime during the middle act. The amount of minutes, like any film, however, isn’t necessarily the affliction. Within this runtime, rather, the film keeps every scene at full length, as if the filmmakers made few edits.

Additionally, a legal drama requires for many a lively and brisk pace, with constant conflict, to keep us engaged. At times, Just Mercy struggles somewhat under the buckle of exposition and legal jargon. 

As we enter the final lap of freedom for Foxx’s character, the film also gets us there in a roundabout way. Arguably, this is how life is and perhaps how the route was for Stevenson and his appeal for McMillian.

Yet in a story played out on the big screen, Just Mercy still keeps the same pace in the final act with little understanding of where it’s going. Ironically, this works to its advantage as we finally get resolution in a surprising and very much emotionally moving way. 

What’s the Verdict?

Just Mercy gets a recommendation as a good film that highlights the horrors of bigotry and injustice in our nation. Though it oftentimes “says” more than it should “show,” the film contains potent messages we all must listen to.

“Movies about racial injustice can ‘exonerate us’ when set in the past, but the evils are more urgent than ever,” wrote Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a columnist with The Hollywood Reporter.

And Abdul-Jabbar is right. These sayings come across in an earnest way, a way that many of us still require. 

And what does Warner Bros. have to say about the debut of its newest film under its newly unveiled diversity and inclusion policy?

I’m proud that Warner Bros., and our sister companies HBO and Turner, are willing to state unequivocally that this is where we stand on diversity and inclusion. Our policy commits us to taking concrete action to further our goals, to measure the outcomes and to share the results publicly,” said Kevin Tsujihara, Chairman and CEO, Warner Bros. “I’m also thrilled that we were able to work with Michael B. Jordan to craft a meaningful policy and framework that will apply to all of our productions, across all of our divisions, going forward.”

And for Jordan, inclusivity has always been in the picture:

Inclusivity has always been a no-brainer for me, especially as a black man in this business. It wasn’t until Frances McDormand spoke the two words that set the industry on fire — inclusion rider — that I realized we could standardize this practice.  It allowed me to formally pledge my production company, Outlier Society, to a way of doing business.”

The WarnerMedia family has introduced an approach that accomplishes our shared objectives, and I applaud them for taking this enormous step forward. I’m proud that our film, ‘Just Mercy,’ will be the first to formally represent the future we have been working toward, together. This is a legacy-bearing moment.”

Score: 6.8/10 

David Zimmerman is a Contributor at Grit Daily. He is a Portland-based screenwriter, film columnist and the founder of Zimm Score Movie Guide. When he's not writing about the big screen, you can find him nerding out with other cinephiles at local PNW breweries and traveling the world with his wife.

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