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Bryan Stevenson’s 2015 memoir, Just Mercy, was adapted into a movie, which was released on Dec. 25. Lawyer and co-founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson writes about capital punishment in the book, particularly focusing on the case of a clearly innocent Walter McMillian. The movie alone is an inspiring story and has been rightfully critically acclaimed.
Roughly every other chapter of the book diverts from McMillian’s story to focus on a more specific issue within the greater scope of unfair and cruel punishments. Another focus is life imprisonment without parole for children as cruel and unusual. These issues are illuminated in the form of anecdotes; the chapter on children assigned capital punishment focuses on the plight of Trina, Ian and Antonio, whose statuses we are updated on in the end of the book. The issues are also presented with historical and statistical background, which consistently interrupts the narrative flow of the individual convicts’ stories.
Stevenson generally keeps himself out of the stories as much as possible, referring to himself in third person, but usually in an objective manner that simply describes his role in specific legal cases. His personal feelings, when present, becomes a perspective that serves as a proxy for the reader or to provide necessary context, such as when police conduct an aggressive, unwarranted search of him outside his residence in Montgomery. This episode gives the readers an idea of the environment in which he works for convicts who are usually part of marginalized groups.
Destin Daniel Cretton directed the movie adaptation of Just Mercy. The focus on McMillian’s case (as opposed to the many anecdotes in the book) combined with stars Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as McMillian served to make the movie deeply emotional; within half an hour of opening credits, my dad was asking to borrow the book.
Cretton is known for his work with Brie Larson. Larson’s character, Eva Ansley, is not prominently featured in the book but is featured in the movie as a dedicated working mother, which she was (and is). However, with every other of Ansley’s lines consisting primarily of a curse and affirmation of Stevenson’s expressions, she is not only the sole main female character but also a relatively weak one.
The depiction of the help of three characters in the movie as being reluctant and surprising is detrimental to the greater theme of hope and optimism.In reality, Ralph Myers contacted Stevenson in hope of helping, not the other way around. In reality, District Attorney Tommy Chapman’s support of the motion to dismiss charges was well-anticipated, even if it was just an attempt to save face.
These alterations did have the effect of making Stevenson look like even more of an underdog, in a case already stacked against him, as he dealt with prejudiced lawyers and law enforcement, policies that were conducive to discriminatory trial and sentencing practices, as well as a public and media largely turned against McMillian.