Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan star in this true story about a wrongful conviction.
SUMMARY (Spoilers, but not really, cuz true)
In 1989, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a Harvard lawyer, travels to Alabama to head up the Southern Center for Human Rights, an organization dedicated to defend Death-Penalty cases and appeals. This later became the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative (after Congress decided to cut funding for Death-Penalty resources). Together with Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), Bryan takes up a number of cases, including that of Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian (Jamie Foxx). Stevenson quickly begins to believe that McMillian, who was convicted of the murder of a white woman named Ronda Morrison, was innocent of the charges and had been used as a scapegoat by local law enforcement. Despite having a number of witnesses that McMillian was present at a public event at the time of the murder, the new prosecutor Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall) refuses to look into the case and the court refuses to grant a new trial even after Stevenson gets the State’s primary witness, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), to recant. It takes many years and multiple appeals, but eventually Stevenson is able to free McMillian.
In response to the recent (as of this writing) protests arising from the death of George Floyd, Amazon has removed the rental cost on a number of films, including this one. I recommend taking advantage of this, because the movies on the list are great. I selected this one, however, because I’m an attorney in the South. I’ve never witnessed any civil rights violation as bad as the ones alleged in this film (or in the events which form its basis), but I still have been around long enough to know that there are gross inequalities between states, counties, or even different judges, and that race, gender, or sexuality can massively amplify those inequalities. As events in the past… well, history of America, but also the last few weeks, have reminded us, racism is still an issue in this country. In fact, I had a disturbing realization during this movie that all of the events depicted are within my lifetime, including the revelation that another wrongful conviction took 28 years to reverse.
The strength of this movie, naturally, is in its performances. The leads are all unbelievably charismatic and believable, from Michael B. Jordan’s optimistic but not really naive portrayal of Stevenson to Foxx’s portrayal of a disillusioned and broken man to Tim Blake Nelson as a career criminal trying to do just one good thing.
The plot of the movie is pretty standard for how courtroom dramas like these always play out. If you’ve seen Gideon’s Trumpet or The Hurricane, then you have seen this film before. In any story that’s based on a real life case, you can probably guess from the beginning that the end of the film is going to have someone getting exonerated. It would probably be a bummer to tell the story of a person who was executed and then later proven innocent (which has definitely happened), so the movie naturally picked a case with a “happy” ending. Unfortunately, that same logic is one of the weaknesses of the film, because it tries to portray most of what happened to McMillian as being a matter of figurative and literal black-and-white.
That’s not to say that there weren’t a number of extra culpable people in his case, there absolutely were, but the film only touches on the fact that almost all of the people responsible were not only elected, but continued to be elected after the charges against McMillian were dropped. While Jordan does deliver a short monologue on how a rural Southern jury might perceive McMillian (even in 1989), the fact is that any number of people might have wanted to speak out against this, but the entire community would have been at their throats for doing so. Hell, the prosecutor and Sheriff were both basically threatened by the voters if they didn’t have someone convicted for the murder. Racism isn’t just ten bad people in power, it’s the hundred bad people who want those ten people in power, but aren’t willing to do the dirty deeds themselves. The movie also shies away from emphasizing the fact that the media had long condemned McMillian from the moment he got arrested, a reminder that journalists can often contribute to injustice as much as they can fight against it. However, the movie DID go further into it than many other films, so I will still give it credit.
Honestly, this is still a really well-done film, even if it’s pretty formulaic by necessity. I think it also goes into some issues with the legal system that people should be aware are not just remnants of the 50s or 60s, but are still problems in the modern day. Hell, the Alabama rule that allowed a judge to overrule a jury and impose a one-sided Death Penalty, as happened in this case with Judge Robert E. Lee Key, Jr. (yes, that name is real), was only eliminated in 2017. This kind of regional or local inequality still exists. There’s a county line near me where on one side, possession of marijuana resulted in a dropped case for some community service, on the other side, possession was ten days jail (until Florida accidentally made it impossible to prosecute cannabis cases last year).
I try not to get too political on this blog, but right now is a great time to watch a film based on real, and recent, events and get a picture of how our country has been in recent years and to realize that some problems are not just coming out of nowhere. There aren’t going to be a lot of easy solutions, and anything is going to take time, but the first step is to acknowledge there’s a problem. If you watch this movie, or read up on the case that it’s focused on, then it becomes really hard to claim that there aren’t issues in the country. Please, do yourself a favor, check it out.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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