January 12, 2020 – Based on a true story, this familiar, but gut wrenching drama about a lawyer, with his wrongly convicted black client on Death Row in Alabama, fighting against a rigged legal system, carries a shattering emotional punch.
Michael B. Jordan (“Creed”) plays young Harvard lawyer Bryan Stevenson, who arrives in Monroeville, Alabama to set up a local office of the Equal Justice Initiative (founded by Stevenson). It is a good symbolic place for such an organization, since the famous story, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is set in this same town. But even though Stevenson, who is basically the new Atticus Finch, he is not welcome in Monroeville. He is unwelcome because he is black and especially because he is appealing the murder conviction of a local black man.
The idea of the Equal Justice Initiative is to provide legal representation to those who may not have gotten a fair trial. To start with, Stevenson visits the inmates on death row. They all have similar stories relating to inadequate legal representation. One prisoner, Walter McMillian (played by Jaime Foxx of “Baby Driver”) has a case ripe for appeal, but has no faith in lawyers, and is uncooperative.
Stevenson goes to visit McMillian's family, and finds a wealth of information needed to completely exonerate McMillian. He goes back to visit with McMillian, who hears the evidence that Stevenson has gathered and agrees to have Stevenson represent him. He is particularly impressed that Stevenson went to visit his family. Most lawyers could barely be bothered to phone them, according to McMillian's wife, Minnie (Karan Kendrick of “The Hate U Give”).
Local police find out about one exculpatory witness that Stevenson finds and they intimidate him to the point where he refuses to testify. That leaves the one remaining witness that Stevenson can talk to, and that is career criminal Ralph Myers (played by Tim Blake Nelson of “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”).
When Ralph Myers admits that Sheriff Tate (Michael Harding) intimidated him into falsifying his testimony against McMillian. Stevenson now has overwhelming evidence McMillian's innocence, as well as police misconduct. He is confident that McMillian's conviction will be overturned in court, but a local judge refuses to overturn the conviction. Stevenson is very discouraged but takes the case to the state Supreme Court.
Stevenson and McMillian have the cards stacked against them. Corruption in the legal system extends from local law enforcement to local judges, and even into the state prison system. How far up does it go? How high will Stevenson have to climb in the legal system before his case gets a fair hearing?
It is not just a case of legal impediments, either. Stevenson himself has a gun pointed at his head by a deputy, and the family of Eva Ansley (Brie Larson of “Captain Marvel”) of the Equal Justice Initiative is scared by a bomb threat.
It seems like the courts, law enforcement and the prison system will go to incredible lengths to kill McMillian, even at the risk of letting the real killer off the hook. They have a conviction, and they are not letting it go without a fight. It seems like Sheriff Tate, and some others know that McMillian is not guilty. It made me wonder if the family of the murder victim knew that as well.
At the end of the film there are photos of the real people depicted in this film, and some appalling statistics about the error rate in murder convictions, a disproportionate number of those erroneous convictions involve people of color. This is an emotionally powerful film with excellent performances by Jordan, Foxx, Larson and others. The movie is very well crafted by writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton, based on Stevenson's book about this case. This film rates a B+.
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