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“This is 1986. This isn’t like the 60s and 50s”: Locating the Long Civil Rights Narrative in Just Mercy (2019)

Johanne Østergaard and Mikkel Jensen


Most mainstream films about the civil rights movement are set in the South in the 1950-1960s, but this article points out how Hollywood in the 2010s broke new ground by also portraying civil rights struggles after that era. Many historians have heeded Jacqueline Dowd Hall’s call to revise the American civil rights narrative, and this article argues that Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy (2019) is a part of a wave of “long civil rights films.” Exploring how Just Mercy portrays a key injustice that continues to affect contemporary America while also showing civil rights activism to continue into the 1980s, 1990s, and onwards, the article argues that Just Mercy’s depiction of the unjust treatment, conviction, and incarceration of Alabama native Walter McMillian in the late 1980s effectively calls for a revised understanding of the longer lines of civil rights activism.

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1. Introduction

1The release of Mississippi Burning (Alan Parker, 1988) marked the start of a wave of civil rights films that, in the words of American Studies scholar Delphine Letort, “was dedicated to recounting the fight for desegregation in the southern states” (31). Subsequent films like The Long Walk Home (Richard Pearce, 1990), Ghosts of Mississippi (Rob Reiner, 1996), The Rosa Parks Story (Julie Dash, 2002), The Help (Tate Taylor, 2011), and Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014) have demonstrated Hollywood’s continued interest in making films about civil rights struggles, which, in Letort’s assessment, actively play a part in “shaping our memory of the 1950s and 1960s” (31). This tradition, however, has different subcurrents.

2The abovementioned films depict southern civil rights struggles, honoring the icons and legal victories of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, which ended Jim Crow segregation. The 2010s, however, saw a new trajectory in how screen narratives depict American civil rights struggles. Miniseries like Show Me a Hero (David Simon and William Zorzi, 2015), When They See Us (Ava DuVernay, 2019), We Own This City (David Simon and George Pelecanos, 2022) and films like Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, 2013) and Just Mercy (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2019) tell a different story. Except for Just Mercy none of them are set in the South and not one of them tells the story of what is often referred to as ‘the classical phase’ of the civil rights movement of the 1950-1960s (Hall 1234). This is central in terms of understanding how American filmmakers and showrunners are telling civil rights narratives in a new way.

3In 2005, historian Jacqueline Dowd Hall called for historians to move beyond from focusing their research on the civil rights movement only on the 1950s-1960s (Hall 2005). Historians have heeded this call as evidenced by, for instance, Thomas Sugrue’s Sweet Land of Liberty, which charts a then-hitherto underexamined civil rights struggle in the North. Sugrue’s account of this northern civil rights struggle departs from the dominant way of understanding civil rights history in the US. To him, “[c]onventional histories of the civil rights movement begin with 1954 and the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, and they culminate in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which together unraveled southern-style racial segregation” (xiii).

  • 1 In the 21st century, films are still made about the civil rights struggles of the 1950s-1960s: e.g. (...)

4What Sugrue calls the “conventional history” of the civil rights movement is the narrative that Hollywood had singularly embraced until the 2010s. Set in Alabama in the late 1980s, Just Mercy departs from this narrative in its depiction of the real-life story of the unjustly convicted African American Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) who was facing execution until the young African American lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) took on the almost impossible case of getting McMillian acquitted and released. Based on Stevenson’s 2014 memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, the film shows Stevenson battling a racially biased justice system. This article explores how this film engages with American history and argues that Just Mercy is part of this recent wave of dramatic films and miniseries that depict civil rights struggles in the era after the conventional narrative.1

  • 2 As of this writing, Hall’s article has been cited more than 1800 times, which speaks to just how in (...)

5This article demonstrates how Just Mercy moves Hollywood’s portrayal of civil rights activism into the 1980s with a societal critique of an unjust criminal justice system and of the death penalty. The film’s use of a few central intertextual references to To Kill a Mockingbird points out a tragic discrepancy in how Monroeville, Alabama celebrates Atticus Finch’s fictional civil rights activism while it, at the same time, is reluctant to accept the importance and relevance of Stevenson’s civil rights activism in the 1980s. Suggesting that Monroeville wants to believe that it has left racism behind, Just Mercy, conversely, points to the continued existence of racial oppression in the South. Dramatizing how racial oppression persisted well into the 1980s and showing how Bryan Stevenson’s efforts prove that civil rights activism also continued well after 1968, Just Mercy critiques mass incarceration and humanizes death row inmates. The film points to the persistent problems relating to mass incarceration and the death penalty, but the film also emphasizes how Stevenson’s efforts have contributed to improving racial justice in the US. The film, then, does not focus on a problem that America has fully overcome like, say, slavery as in 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013) or Jim Crow segregation in the workplace as in Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, 2016). But showing how Hollywood in the 21st century is starting to catch up to the insights that civil rights historians have established since Dowd Hall’s seminal 2005 essay requires taking a closer look at the classical civil rights narrative.2

2. The Classical and Long Civil Rights Narratives

6The classical civil rights narrative is replete with iconic figures and events: The 1954 Brown decision overturned the principle of “separate but equal.” The Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56 ended when federal courts stroke down the legality of bus segregation. The boycott also launched Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. as important figures in the civil rights movement. The integration of schools in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 caused international attention to the point that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles feared that the situation would prove detrimental to the projection of the US abroad, noting that “The effect of this in Asia and African will be worse for us than Hungary was for the Russians” (Dulles qtd. in Dudziak 131). The sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960 spread quickly and within a year more than one hundred communities chose to desegregate lunch counters (Tuck 2012b, 282). And the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 secured African Americans formal equality in the US. The events of this era directly inspired films like The Long Walk Home, Crisis at Central High (Lamont Johnson 1981), The Rosa Parks Story, Selma, and the two-part miniseries Separate but Equal (George Stevens Jr., 1991). But since the publication of Hall’s essay in 2005, historians have expanded this narrative to see how civil rights struggles continued after the assassination of Dr. King in 1968 and demonstrate how it is not only a Southern story. Though the victories of that period did result in significant victories regarding formal equality, the fight for substantive equality continued. Sugrue argues that

The ‘movement’—narrowly defined—consisted of challenges to officially sanctioned, legally enforceable racial segregation. But few activists at the time saw the battle to strike down legally mandated segregation as an end in itself. Rather, it was one part of a larger, multifaceted battle that at its broadest included fights for prohibition against discrimination in the workplace, the openings of housing markets, the provision of quality education, the economic development of impoverished communities, and untrammeled access to the consumer marketplace. (xvi)

7The movement did not only seek to overthrow “legally enforceable racial segregation,” but had a broader range of aims, including access to jobs and good housing. Not acknowledging that several forms of racial equality and injustice continued after the passing of the legislative victories in 1964 and 1965, one conservative interpretation sees the civil rights victories of the 1950s and 1960s as “a story of tragedy but ultimate triumph” (Sugrue xiii). This interpretation is misleading because it suggests that the obstacles African Americans have subsequently faced are self-inflicted because all formal obstacles to realizing the American dream were removed in the 1960s (Pedersen 317-318).

8The importance of how people perceive the past speaks to the relevance of studying how popular media depict history, which, for instance, is important when choosing how to depict notions of agency in civil rights struggles. American Studies scholar Sharon Monteith notes that white protagonists in classical civil rights film often “undergo a rites [sic] of passage or racial conversion” (121) as they bravely challenge deep-seated segregationist and racist attitudes and beliefs. Historian Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua makes a parallel point when arguing that civil rights films “depict what has been done to blacks, and what has been done for them; but not what has been done by them” (126), pointing to how African Americans were depicted as passive in their own liberation, serving as plot devices in the civil rights film’s main drama which foregrounds white heroic characters’ bold actions as they struggle with their conscience. When Director Ava DuVernay was making Selma, she wanted to bring another take on the civil rights movement to the big screen:

I didn’t want to make ‘Mississippi Burning.’ It had its place; it was among the first that dealt with African-American-centered history and the only way to get people into the theaters then was to have a ‘white savior.’ But we’re past that point. If in 2014 we’re still making ‘white savior movies’ then it’s just lazy and unfortunate. We’ve grown up as a country and cinema should be able to reflect what’s true. And what’s true is that black people are the center of their own lives and should tell their own stories from their own perspectives. That was my first order of business. (Loren King)

9While DuVernay takes issue with the white savoir trope in Mississippi Burning, she also acknowledges how the film broke new ground by taking African American history to the big screen. Avoiding the tendency to minimize the agency of African Americans as Cha-Jua discusses, Selma is nevertheless a classic civil rights narrative by chronicling what historian Thomas Frank calls “the last great, unambiguous triumph of the civil rights movement” (169). Its cultural function of memorializing an important victory, however, sets it apart from “long civil rights screen narratives” that parallel Hall’s call for making civil rights history harder to tell: “Harder to celebrate as a natural progression of American values. Harder to cast as a satisfying morality tale. Most of all, harder to simplify, appropriate, and contain” (1235). Hall wants the long civil rights narrative to challenge some of the ideological assumptions she sees embedded in the classical civil rights narrative, which is why she calls for new civil rights narratives that do not overlook, for instance, the emergence of the “prison-industrial complex” (Hall 1261). Directly commenting on mass incarceration and problems in the criminal justice system, Just Mercy follows through on Hall’s call.

10Central to Hall’s argument for the long civil rights narrative is a wish to address the setbacks and not just the victories of the movement, thus conveying a narrative of the civil rights movement as “an ongoing project whose key crises may still lie ahead” (Hall 1255). Hall argues that the conventional narrative’s way of “confining the civil rights struggle to the South, to bowdlerized heroes, to a single halcyon decade, and to limited noneconomic objectives… prevents one of the most remarkable mass movements in American history from speaking effectively to the challenges of our time” (Hall 1234). By emphasizing civil rights struggles that persisted after the 1960s and stressing how activism continued to successfully challenge racist practices in the American criminal justice system, Just Mercy parallels Hall’s ambitions about broadening the civil rights narrative. It avoids “confining” the civil rights narrative in the terms Hall outline and thus makes 20th-century civil rights history speak to 21st century issues.

11In a revealing turn of phrase, historian Stephen Tuck uses the phrase “the civil rights era” to refer to the era of mass activism in the 1950-1970s a total of four times in his book We Ain’t What We Ought To Be on African American history (308, 326, 404, 410). Tuck’s usage of this phrase suggests that, to him, there is no contradiction between talking about “the civil rights era” and telling a long civil rights narrative. Sociologists Doug McAdam and Karina Kloos chart the extent of civil rights activism from 1948-1976, showing how the 1960s indeed were an exception in terms of the high level of civil rights activism:

12Mass activism reached a high point in the early sixties and this chart lends weight to the use of the term of “the civil rights era,” which corresponds to what Hall calls the classical phase and Sugrue refers to as the conventional narrative. But as suggested by the right-hand side of the chart, civil rights activism did not stop in 1968. The level of activity declined though many problems remained unsolved.

13Scholars have, however, pointed out some potential weakness in the long civil rights narrative. American Studies scholar Richard H. King argues that this narrative is problematic because it “all but contextualizes the southern Civil Rights Movement right out of existence. The genuinely new aspects of the movement of the 1950s and 1960s tend to be swallowed up by precursors and predecessors in the struggles of the 1930s, which were pretty far from the experience of most black Southerners who joined the movement” (480). King’s claim that Hall’s call for a long civil rights narrative might potentially erase the particularity or specificity of the southern civil rights movement is indeed one of the potential drawbacks with extending the long civil rights movement into the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and into this millennium. The main thrust of this critique is that the fundamentally extraordinary aspects—its emergence, the level of activism, and its key victories—of the classical phase can potentially be overlooked in the long civil rights narrative.

14While this certainly is a danger to be mindful of, the fact remains that long civil rights screen narratives like Just Mercy or Show Me a Hero stand out in American film and television history because they break new ground by showing how civil rights activism did extend beyond the so-called “civil rights era.” This article’s reading of Just Mercy as a long civil rights narrative should thus not be understood as an argument for “contextualiz[ing] the southern Civil Rights Movement right out of existence.” To the contrary, it explores Just Mercy’s attempt to bring nuance to popular conceptions of civil rights struggles in American history.

3. Just Mercy

15In his memoir, Stevenson accounts broadly for his career with helping poor and marginalized people who have been denied a fair trial and have been wrongly convicted. Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s adaptation, however, revolves only around Stevenson’s first case in Monroeville, Alabama in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The film depicts the self-employed African American logger Walter McMillian who is convicted of the murder of the white 18-year-old, Ronda Morrison. Before Morrison was killed, McMillian had had an affair with a married white woman, which led his reputation to become compromised when the ensuing divorce between the woman and her husband became a matter of public discussion in Monroeville.

16During a scene in which Stevenson visits McMillian’s family to talk about his conviction, McMillian’s wife Minnie (Karen Kendrick) notes how McMillian’s affair with the white woman had tarnished his reputation in an almost exponential fashion, saying that “[h]e went from being a cheat, to a drug dealer, to head of the Dixie Mafia. So by the time somebody call him a murderer, ain’t nobody thought twice about it.” Pointing to this vilification of McMillian, Minnie argues that his tarnished public image undermined his chances of getting a fair trial. The jury voted to imprison McMillian for life, but Judge Robert E. Lee Key overruled this verdict and instead sentenced McMillian to the death penalty, despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence. Incidentally, Just Mercy’s focus on miscarriage of justice ties it to another one of the long civil rights screen narratives, namely When They See Us’ portrayal of the wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five.

17Stevenson understands the McMillian case in the context of American racial history, arguing that “[f]or over a century, law enforcement officials in many Southern communities absolutely saw it as part of their duty to investigate and punish black men who had been intimate with white women” (Just Mercy 27). Noting how this legacy affected the city’s perception of McMillian (Just Mercy 27-30) is symptomatic of Stevenson’s analyses of the injustices he has worked to counter. He continually historicizes the wrongs he sees, an aspect that also comes to the fore in Just Mercy.

4. Intertextual Engagement

18Walter McMillian lived in Monroeville, Alabama, which is also where the novel To Kill a Mockingbird is set and where its author, Harper Lee (1926-2016), grew up. Just Mercy makes an intertextual reference out of this historical coincidence during a scene in which Stevenson passes the city sign that reads: “Home of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’” To highlight the thematic importance of this historical fact, the camera lingers on the sign for a moment to make sure that viewers catch this allusion to Harper’s novel (fig. 1):

19Figure 1: The city sign’s intertextual allusion to To Kill a Mockingbird opens for a dialogue between Just Mercy and Harper Lee’s novel.

20Stevenson later encounters a clerk at the Monroe County courthouse who enthusiastically urges him to go see the Mockingbird Museum, telling him that “you can stand right where Atticus Finch once stood” as if Lee’s lawyer-hero were a real person. This woman is more fascinated with the fictional local hero than she is invested in the racial problems Finch combated. In his memoir, Stevenson sarcastically recalls that “I refrained from explaining that I was too busy working on the case of an innocent black man the community was trying to execute after a racially biased prosecution.… The last thing I was interested in was a fictional story about justice” (Just Mercy 109).

21The community resists Stevenson’s attempts to achieve justice in a real and contemporary case, but it embraces To Kill a Mockingbird’s portrayal of a fictional case of the fight against racial prejudice. Though Stevenson takes issue with some of the same issues that To Kill a Mockingbird did, the white community (as represented by the clerk) is unable or unwilling to acknowledge this historical continuity.

22Alluding to Lee’s iconic novel is one way that Just Mercy engages with a larger cultural conversation. The 1962 film adaptation’s version of Finch (Gregory Peck) was in 2003 voted the greatest cinematic American hero of all time by the American Film Institute (AFI). To law and humanities scholar Helle Porsdam, Atticus Finch is “the quintessential American lawyer” (Porsdam, “Literary Representation” 257), which is also evidenced by how several legal societies have named awards after Lee’s protagonist (Stevenson, Just Mercy 23). Just Mercy’s engagement with To Kill a Mockingbird is thus an example of what literary scholar Anker Gemzøe calls specific intertextuality; i.e. a conscious and specific allusion in a text to other works in order to engage with a specific author or work of art (36-37). The parallels between Just Mercy and To Kill a Mockingbird are, indeed, strong in terms of textual form: both narratives are courtroom dramas focalized through a defense attorney. Just Mercy points out the irony in how this community embraces a famous narrative that speaks to racial justice, though that very same community does not take issue with McMillian’s conviction. This use of intertextuality raises the issue of a glaring disconnect between ideals and realities in Monroeville.

23Just Mercy also uses this intertextual reference to signal that while it is a courtroom drama like To Kill a Mockingbird it emphatically evades the white savior trope. To legal scholar Osamudia R. James, Harper’s novel embodies this trope, which she believes to reveal how “America likes its stories about race: centered on innocent white protagonists benevolently exercising power, with black characters relegated to the margins even in stories about their own oppression.” But Just Mercy does not just avoid the white savior trope. It also challenges the notion that civil rights narratives can be confined to a somewhat ‘distant past’ that the US has left behind. Film critic Jake Coyle notes that “Just Mercy has the shape of a civil rights drama like To Kill a Mockingbird but it’s more contemporary. The story might not be set during slavery or segregation, but those histories are innately connected to the prejudices and injustices that lead to the jailing of men like McMillian.” While discussing Harper’s novel on CBS Mornings, Stevenson noted that “many young readers read that story and they see that fictional account [To Kill a Mockingbird] and they think ‘well, that happened a really long time ago’ without appreciating that today we still wrongly convict and wrongly condemn lots and lots of people” (“‘Just Mercy’”). The fact that Just Mercy is set in the 1980s counters this perception and it drives home this point through intertitles at the end of the film that tell how “[f]or every 9 people who have been executed in the US, one person on death row has been proven innocent and released, a shocking rate of error.” Stressing the continued existence of this problem is part of how Just Mercy articulates a long civil rights narrative. Hall’s wish to make civil rights history “harder” thus aligns with Stevenson’s take on the history of US racial relations (1235). Stevenson said in a TED Talk that: “We have in this country this dynamic where we really don’t like to talk about our problems. We don’t like to talk about our history. And because of that, we really haven’t understood what it’s meant to do the things we’ve done historically” (“Brayn Stevenson”)

24Stevenson argues that America has not learned from its history of racial bias and discrimination, which he believes to be the root of contemporary racial inequalities and injustices. Just Mercy engages with this history both by addressing the deep historical roots of racial biases as well as by showing how systemic institutionalized racism endured after the civil rights victories of the 1950s-1960s. During the film’s promotional run, Jamie Foxx commented in an interview on the historical period the film is set in, saying “understand this: This is 1986. This isn’t like the 60s and 50s.… Bryan Stevenson, he lets us know that this is still going on.” By depicting a deep-seated institutionalized racial bias in law enforcement and in the criminal justice system and its socio-economic consequences for African American communities, Just Mercy highlights the continuity of racial injustice and thus embraces a long civil rights narrative. The film, however, underscores that its long civil rights narrative is a Southern one.

25On his way into court for the final hearing of McMillian’s case, Stevenson walks past a map that outlines the contours of the South (fig. 2):

26Figure 2: The map in the background emphasizes the Southernness of Just Mercy’s civil rights narrative.

27The geometry of the shot stresses the centrality of the map. The two dimly lit walls in the foreground frame the middle half of the shot and the handrails on the walls point to the map at the back to visually accentuate its importance. The backwall frames the map even further and the production designer has even chosen to place a light just above the map. All of this emphasizes the map, which, in turn, points to how the issue at stake here is the state of justice in the South, not in the US as a whole.

28Just Mercy parallels Hall’s interest in extending the civil rights narrative to the 1980-1990s, but this shot emphasizes the Southernness of the narrative. Depicting the South as not having been so transformed by the classical phase of the civil rights movement as is sometimes assumed, the film questions just how much the classical phase of the civil rights narrative should be understood as a decisive rupture in contemporary American history. Indeed, the very premise of the film is to illustrate the persistence of oppression after the 1960s. The film does not just show (through Stevenson’s efforts) civil rights activism to continue after 1968 but also highlights how oppression continued in the South after 1968 and this shot embodies that idea. The film tells a story about the South not having overcome all aspects of its Jim Crow past.

5. Telling the Past

29The righteous and heroic lawyer is an old and recurrent trope in American popular culture. Porsdam argues that the prominence of the court in American literature, TV series, and films bears witness to the central role it has in American society and history (“I’ll See You in Court!” 96), noting that from “the Supreme Court down, courts have generally been perceived to have a special responsibility as arbiters, even legitimators, of change” (“American Exceptionalism” 175). Just Mercy engages quite clearly with this tradition.

30A central scene in any courtroom film is the dramatic highpoint when opposing lawyers give their closing statements, summing up and stating their cases. To law and humanities scholar Nicole Rafter, such scenes show that the law brings justice and “the triumph of the good lawyer over the unsavory one signals resolution of the film’s dilemma” (136). This argument also applies to Just Mercy’s courtroom scene, but this scene also expands the canvas on which the film paints its portrait of American racial relations. Cretton uses Stevenson’s closing statement to ensure that its viewers understand the film as speaking to larger social issues and the scene drives home the point that the film is not only about a man who proven to be innocent. Just Mercy accentuates, through Stevenson’s monologue, that the issue of getting a fair trial is intertwined with histories of racial prejudice:

It’s easy to see this case as one man trying to prove his innocence. But when you take a black man and put him on death row a year before his trial and exclude black people from serving on his jury, when you base your conviction on a coerced testimony of a white felon, and ignore the testimony of two dozen law-abiding black witnesses, when any evidence proving his innocence is suppressed and anyone who tries to tell the truth is threatened, this case becomes more than the trial of just a single defendant. It becomes a test of whether we’re going to be governed by fear and by anger, or by the rule of law.

31Stevenson’s monologue not only outlines the misconduct and racial bias evident in the trial against McMillian. The film points to how McMillian’s treatment is embedded in a broader pattern of institutionalized discrimination as pertaining to residential segregation and social norms. The film visually broaches this divide between the white and the African American community in Monroe County by showing McMillian’s supporters to be denied entrance until Stevenson arrives in court. Having McMillian’s friends and family forced to stand in the back of the courtroom while many white listeners are seated in front of them, the film visually suggests that the courtroom itself is not the non-hierarchical and impartial space that the iconic figure of the blindfolded Lady Justice represents (fig. 3):

32Figure 3: This shot of the courtroom is synecdochic of the town’s racial hierarchies.

33This scene is a microcosm of the segregated reality that Stevenson encounters when he arrives in Monroeville at the start of the film. The scenery when he drives through a white middle- and upper-class neighborhood is a stark contrast to the film’s depiction of Stevenson arriving in the lower-class African-American neighborhood to speak with McMillian’s friends and family. Just Mercy emphasizes the residential isolation and poverty of the African American community (fig. 4 & 5):

34Figure 4: Stevenson passes through an affluent neighborhood, which sets up a contrast for when he drives through a poor area.

35Figure 5: Having the residents of this house fly the Stars and Stripes out in front paints them as being non-oppositional in relation to mainstream American society.

36Brick estates in privileged white communities are a glaring contrast to the rundown appearance of the wooden houses in the pictures from an African American community, but there is a significant symbolism having a Stars and Stripes flying in front of one of the marginalized African-American houses. Even though this community has gotten a worse hand (whether thought of as material wealth or as equal treatment in the courtroom), it nonetheless flags its loyalty to America. The flag symbolizes that these residents embrace their Americanness even though their society has not treated them fairly.

37This flag symbolically embraces the same sentiment that Martin Luther King articulated in 1963 when he argued that the founders of the republic had “sign[ed] a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir” when they “wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” King saw the US as since having “defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.” By suggesting that civil rights activism aspired to close the gap between American ideals and social realities, King’s allusions to the “architects of our republic” and the “great American” who “signed the Emancipation Proclamation” all worked to metaphorically wrap himself in the Stars and Stripes in an era of pervasive red-baiting (Dudziak 76). Just Mercy’s inclusion of this flag suggests that that same invocation of Americanness is still relevant to make in a civil rights film produced in the 2010s. Historian Mary Dudziak argues that the cold war “narrowed the scope of civil rights discourse” (xix), but though Just Mercy was produced a quarter of a century after the end of the cold war, it nonetheless also articulates its call for equal treatment of African Americans as a call to close the gap between idea and reality.

38The scene showing Stevenson driving into the middle- and upper-class neighborhood is an even stronger contrast to the scene where he arrives at the W. C. Holman Correctional Facility to visit McMillian, which shows a group of African American prisoners working in a field while being watched by armed, white police officers on horseback, a shot that could be seen as alluding to plantation slavery (fig. 6):

39Figure 6: This shot of prisoners working a field can be read as an allusion to antebellum slavery.

40Just Mercy uses these shots to broaden its take on American racial history. It wants to speak to a bigger picture than the state of Alabama in the late 1980s. The references to To Kill a Mockingbird invoke connections to the classical era of civil rights struggle when it was published (the novel in 1960; the film in 1962) and to the Jim Crow era in which it is set (in 1936). But these allusions to slavery in the Antebellum South suggests that Just Mercy’s depiction of Stevenson and McMillian’s struggles is to be understood in an even longer history. These shots invoke the long civil rights narrative.

41The scene where Stevenson arrives at the W. C. Holman Correctional Facility does not stand alone in extending Just Mercy further back in American history. Another scene shows Stevenson and the Operations Director of the EJI, Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), sitting on a bench gazing over a body of water. Stevenson notes on the challenges he faces in McMillian’s case:

Nobody wants to remember that this is where thousands of enslaved people were shipped in and paraded up the street to be sold. Just ten miles from here, black people were pulled from their homes and lynched. Nobody talks about it. And now this black boy from Delaware walks into their courtrooms and expects them to admit they convicted an innocent black man.

42Telling a long civil rights movement narrative by emphasizing how the past weighs on the present is Stevenson’s way of connecting the history of slavery and lynching with the unequal treatment of blacks in the courts in the 1980s. Just Mercy thus attempts to claim a larger canvas for its societal critique. This scene occurs after Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), the key witness in the prosecution’s case against McMillian, has recanted his testimony. Judge Foster (Lindsay Ayliffe) nevertheless declines to grant McMillian a new trial. The juxtaposition of these two scenes articulates Just Mercy’s emphasis on how the legacy of slavery affects contemporary racial inequality and injustice. The film underscores that the US resists addressing its racial history: “nobody wants to remember,” “nobody talks about it.” If viewers did not get the message through mise-en-scène in the scene where Stevenson arrives at the prison, this piece of dialogue makes Just Mercy’s position clear. This view on the American past, however, is intimately connected to the film’s depiction of the prison system.

6. Mass Incarceration

43Civil rights scholar and activist Michelle Alexander argues that racial hierarchy and oppression have taken three shapes in American history: slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration, the latter of which she considers to be The New Jim Crow as is the title of her famous book (20-58). During slavery being black meant being enslaved while under Jim Crow blackness meant being relegated to second-class citizenship. “Today mass incarceration defines,” Alexander writes, “the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals” (197).

  • 3 Alexander’s position in this discussion about change and continuity in the history of American raci (...)

44Where some people believe that the history of US racial relations is marked by a change for the better, Alexander argues that American racial relations are marked not by fundamental change, but by a problematic continuity. She concedes that there are differences between these three eras, arguing that “[f]ailure to acknowledge the relevant differences … would be a disservice to racial justice discourse,” but she maintains that “the similarities between these systems of control overwhelm the differences” (14-15). Indeed, Alexander’s website suggests that her book “challenges the civil rights community—and all of us—to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America” (The New Jim Crow Website). Mass incarceration should be the focal point of contemporary civil rights struggles in Alexander’s eyes. Just Mercy would agree.3

45Alexander notes that the consequences of giving a person a sentence extends beyond the incarcerated individual. Such “shame and stigma… [extend] to family members and friends—even whole communities are stigmatized by the presence of those labeled criminals” (198). Just Mercy also emphasizes how one person’s sentence affects their family and friends, but not only in relation to shame and stigma. “It’s not just Dad. We feel like they put us all on death row, too,” McMillian’s daughter Jackie (Scarlet Olivia Dunbar) tells Stevenson, and when Judge Foster, in a later scene, declares that McMillian will not get a new trial, John McMillian (C.J. LeBlanc) (Walter’s son) objects and yells to the judge that “You’re killing my family, Sir! You!” By having two of McMillian’s children say in different scenes that McMillian’s sentence hangs over the entire family, Just Mercy stresses how the death sentence affects the families of those on death row.

46Another scene shows Minnie McMillian telling Stevenson how McMillian’s unjust sentence makes it hard for her to pass onto her children a belief that they will be able to shape their lives: “I really don’t know what I’m supposed to tell them about staying out of trouble when you can be in your own house, minding your own business, surrounded by your entire family, and they still going to put some murder on you.” The film dramatizes how this reality affects Monroeville’s African-American community. Seeing how her husband was victimized by racist suspicions and biases, Minnie fears that no matter how she, her husband, and their children act, it will not ultimately be up to them to avoid imprisonment. In Just Mercy, this stigma is not only limited to African Americans of a lower social class. Stevenson is shown to be pulled over by a police officer who even holds a gun to his head for no apparent reason. During an appearance on CBS Mornings, Stevenson commented on his experiences of this presumption of guilt and how it relates to the damage done by slavery, lynching, and segregation:

I’ve got a law degree from Harvard, I’ve got honorary doctorates, I’ve argued cases at the United States Supreme Court and I have been pulled out of my car and police officers have threatened to blow my brains out because of this presumption and it doesn’t matter how smart you are, how educated you are, you will go places in this country where you will be presumed dangerous… and this culture has been created by this history that we don’t acknowledge. (“‘Just Mercy’”)

47Becoming part of the intellectual middle class did not insulate Stevenson from such treatment. During his final motion in McMillian’s case the fictionalized Stevenson remarks that “[i]t becomes a test of whether we’re going to be governed by fear and by anger, or by the rule of law.” He does not just challenge the ruling in the McMillian case but puts on trial the institutionalized racial bias in the criminal justice system. The scene where McMillian is arrested very clearly shows that McMillian in no way seemed suspicious to the viewer. This scene is significant because it can ward off potential readings of the film that might find that McMillian, in some way, had behaved in a way that made it reasonable for law enforcement officers to target him.

48This connects rather directly discussions regarding mass incarceration to discussions of the long civil rights movement narrative. Stevenson sees a direct line from earlier forms of racial oppression to present day issues:

[F]or me, slavery doesn’t end in 1865. It just evolves. It turns into decades where we have terrorism and lynching. And our courts and our systems of government tolerate it… The legal system, the rule of law, was complicit… And then, we lived through this period of civil rights struggle that had some success, but it didn’t ultimately confront that narrative of racial difference. And so now, we have a system of criminal justice administration that is very racialized, where we tolerate bias and inequality. (“Bryan Stevenson”)

49Stevenson acknowledges that the classical era of the civil rights movement did affect decisive changes in American society (“this period of civil rights struggle that had some success”), but also sees it as having failed to “ultimately confront that narrative of racial difference,” which, to Stevenson, is particularly visible in the US criminal justice system. This take on American racial history parallels sociologist Loïc Wacquant’s argument that slavery needs to be understood as a central backstory to contemporary mass incarceration. To Wacquant, “slavery and mass imprisonment are genealogically linked and… one cannot understand the latter… without returning to the former as historic starting point and functional analogue” (Wacquant 41-42). This continuity argument also aligns very closely with Alexander’s analysis of American society and history.

50In the HBO documentary True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality (2019), Stevenson argues that there is a direct link from the state of contemporary American society to the societal structures that allowed lynching to take place for so many years. Noting how anti-lynching movements were growing by the 1930s and 1940s, Stevenson argues that the judicial system took over this extra-legal production of violence: “We’re going to end mob lynching by telling the mob that we’ll do it for you, we’ll do it indoors…You have these show trials that last six or seven hours, and the same outcome. We’re going to execute this person. And you see the numbers start to rise of legal execution, but in communities of color, it’s just legal lynching.” Just Mercy also articulates this view on the legacy of lynching. Destin Daniel Cretton has noted that he “felt like this was honestly Bryan’s story to tell. I felt like a student and a servant to his story, trying to find the best way to tell that as possible” (Cretton qtd. in McLachlan), which seems to shine through here. Stevenson’s view of American society is also Just Mercy’s view. The film shows an elderly man from McMillian’s community note on McMillian’s conviction that “[t]hey can call it what they want. This is just another way to lynch a black man,” which is accompanied by agreeing nods and comments from the rest of the community. By seeing strong continuities of racial oppression from era to era, Just Mercy aligns closely with Alexander’s analysis of American racial relations.

7. Humanizing the Inmate

51The feature film’s ability to transform the past into a coherent narrative is premised on selecting what to include and exclude in the final product. Rosenstone argues that by doing so history films become able to “do history” in the sense that they meaningfully and seriously contribute to a society’s discussions about its past (37). Pointing to the civil war drama Glory (Edward Zwick, 1989), Rosenstone argues that history films shape viewers’ understanding of the past, even though feature films invariably take some artistic license in their depiction of the past. Rosenstone takes civil war historian James M. McPherson as witness for his case. McPherson writes: “Can movies teach history? For Glory the answer is yes. Not only is it the first feature film to treat the role of Black soldiers in the American Civil War, but it is also one of the most powerful and historically accurate movies ever made about that war” (McPherson qtd. in Rosenstone 40). Rosenstone notes that though this film includes several elements that did not really happen, he—in line with James M. McPherson’s acclaim of the film—nonetheless stresses that Glory is able to ‘do history’ in a meaningful way. Just Mercy does history in this sense; it aims to engage with American culture and shape new ways of understanding the history of civil rights struggles, and in doing so the filmmakers had to make some creative decisions on how to piece its narrative together. Cretton himself has commented that this process was necessary in order for him and his collaborators to take Stevenson’s story to the big screen. For Just Mercy to convey his story properly, the film had to be created in accordance with the demands and conventions of the dramatic feature: “I actually find that, if you don’t take liberties in adapting something, you honestly are going to be further from the truth, because you’re gonna have just a sloppy... You just can’t fit something into two hours unless you’re piecing it together.”

52The artistic license in “piecing it together” became particularly relevant in relation to offering viewers a human face on the men on death row. The liberties Cretton took concerned the dialogue and how he shifted events around “to happen in the flow of what we wanted the story to be” (Cretton). The way Just Mercy unfolds the story of the two other death row inmates, also based on real people, Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), and their friendship with McMillian, illustrates the liberties Cretton took in order to convey their experiences. In the film, the three men are depicted in three cells next to each other, which means they cannot see one another. The film consequently portrays their comradery through a lot of invented dialogue which arguably is made to have a strong emotional appeal in order to humanize these three men on death row.

53Richardson was in fact guilty of killing a 10-year-old girl in 1977 and Cretton uses his story to add nuance to the questions the film raises about the death penalty and racial bias in the criminal justice system. According to the EJI’s website, Richardson, an African American Vietnam War veteran, was sentenced to the death penalty after having killed the 10-year-old Rena Mae who had picked up and shook a pipe bomb that Richardson had made, causing it to detonate. Richardson had suffered a great deal of mental trauma during his time in the war and suffered from PTSD (Equal Justice Initiative, no date). Just Mercy emphasizes the fact that Richardson’s lawyer did not present this information during his trial, a fact that might inform viewers’ perception of Richardson’s mental state and his sentencing. His day in court was not a fair one.

54When Richardson receives his execution date, Just Mercy shows him struggling with the guilt of his actions, noting that “I ain’t like you guys” because he was responsible for Rena Mae’s death, while McMillian and Hinton are innocent. McMillian consoles him, arguing that “[t]hat don’t give nobody the right to kill you back” while Hinton responds that “[y]ou fought for this country. And they threw you in the bag like the trash. That war made you sick in your head, man. You supposed to be in a hospital. Not here.” Just Mercy utilizes this dialogue to counter the belief that the state has a right to claim lives, even of those guilty of a serious crime.

55The film thus implicitly questions if the court should not have shown some leniency in Richardson’s sentencing. It could have taken his background and mental health into consideration. The humanization of McMillian, Hinton, and Richardson counters any discourse that would seek to write off death row inmates as dangerous criminals who deserve excessive and capital punishment. Just Mercy’s inclusion of Richardson’s background nuances vilifying discourses regarding “the criminal.” The film tries to qualify this discourse and extend it beyond the dichotomy of innocence and guilt.

56Just Mercy’s inclusion of Richardson’s execution is another way that Just Mercy taps into Hall’s notion of the long civil rights narrative. In a sense, the film comes to have both a tragic and an uplifting ending. Richardson is executed and the film informs that he “is one of over 65 people who have been executed in Alabama since 1983, most of whom could not obtain adequate legal assistance.” In other words, the film points out the criminal justice system’s problems, which shows a central issue that civil rights activism has not “fixed.”

57The film uses Richardson’s case and the dramatic depiction of his execution to address the grim realities of the death sentence. It connects this issue to how many people have not had adequate resources to protect themselves against capital punishment. But Richardson’s storyline also offers counterpoint to McMillian’s more uplifting character arc.

58The ultimate release of McMillian gives the viewer the emotional ‘payoff’ of a happy ending, but this is not to say that that makes Just Mercy a civil rights narrative “of tragedy but ultimate triumph” to use Thomas Sugrue’s take on the conventional civil rights narrative. The film’s final intertitles note that McMillian died in 2013 and that “[h]is years on death row weighed heavily on him until the end.” Just Mercy’s ending does not let its viewers believe that everything was made right in the end. It is no unambiguous triumph. The ending sequence further informs the viewer of Hinton’s case, noting that he was “convicted of a double homicide, based almost entirely on a faulty ballistics report. The prosecutor said he could tell Ray was guilty just by looking at him.” Stevenson had to take Hinton’s case to the Supreme Court to get him acquitted. Followed by this information the film presents real life footage of Hinton’s release in 2015 after 30 years on death row. In this manner, Just Mercy emphasizes the contemporaneity of the racial bias in the US criminal justice system. It insists that the problems it sheds light on have not been solved. The problems remain.

8. Closing Remarks

59Many Hollywood films embrace a progressive view of the past. Critic Rune Lykkeberg argues that Dr. King’s adage that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” (King 1965) informs liberal America’s perception of history as is it expressed in 19th century historical dramas like Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012), 12 Years a Slave as well as in civil rights films like Selma and Hidden Figures. Imbuing the historical hardships they portray with a triumphalist purpose and meaning, such films trace necessary steps in the progress towards “the better present” of today (Lykkeberg 43, 47-56). When civil rights films depict the ills of the past that contemporary society has overcome, they are embracing this uplifting view of history.

60Just Mercy does not fully follow this trend. Its celebration of Stevenson’s achievement in getting the innocent McMillian acquitted gives the film’s viewers a sense of resolution that Rosenstone notes is so typical of the history film that “leaves you with a moral message and (usually) a feeling of uplift” (47). But the film maintains that the struggle against mass incarceration continues, and the film is therefore less triumphalist than the dramas Lykkeberg single out. Premised on a desire to raise awareness about mass incarceration and an unjust criminal justice system, the narrative structure of Just Mercy nevertheless centers on seeing through a solution to the problem. This is unlike Fruitvale Station’s attempt to raise awareness about the problem of lethal police violence. Attending to a contemporary problem instead of dramatizing a way to overcome it, this film is a complete contrast to the uplifting films Lykkeberg singles out. It does not celebrate how contemporary America is better (or “good” in a more absolute sense of the word), but instead emphasizes a problem that is detrimental to many people’s lives. Just Mercy occupies a middle ground between these two ends of the spectrum. It celebrates a historical victory, but it also emphasizes that the issue it attends to cannot be understood as a thing of the past.

61Lykkeberg argues that one way of understanding films of past victories against injustice is that they remind viewers that it made sense for earlier generations to fight against injustice. Such films can thus serve as inspiration for contemporary activism against, for instance, racial injustice and oppression (56). Just Mercy adheres to this tradition by hagiographically celebrating Stevenson as a contemporary hero who persistently has fought racial bias in the criminal justice system. In perhaps one of the weightiest of acclaims of his work, Archbishop Desmond Tutu described Stevenson as “America’s Mandela” (Tutu qtd. in Coyle). Just Mercy is thus Destin Daniel Cretton’s attempt to give American popular culture a ‘Black Atticus Finch’ as it were; but one who is real and who is not a white savior. In this view, Just Mercy is very much a call for continued activism.

62In 2012, Delphine Letort noted that Hollywood stopped making civil rights films after The Rosa Parks Story in 2002 (45) yet the release of The Help in 2011 and Selma in 2014 shows that this “disappearance” was only a brief intermezzo in this tradition. When Hollywood renewed its interest in depicting civil rights struggles, however, it created this new wave of dramatic films and miniseries that extends the civil rights struggle into the decades after the 1960s. Just Mercy moves beyond the classical civil rights narrative and emphasizes that the South was still marked by an entrenched racial hierarchy well into the 1980s and 1990s. Its focus on mass incarceration and an unjust criminal justice system highlights one issue that civil rights activism has combated after 1968. The film’s historical allusions to slavery, to the classical era of civil rights struggles, and its intertextual references to To Kill a Mockingbird demonstrate the film’s commitment to revising pop-cultural notions of how to understand the history of civil rights struggles in the US. This is how Just Mercy brings the long civil rights narrative to the big screen and how it can potentially challenge its audience’s perception of how the past informs contemporary issues of racial injustice in the US.

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1 In the 21st century, films are still made about the civil rights struggles of the 1950s-1960s: e.g. The Help (2011), Selma (2014), All the Way (Jay Roach, 2016), Judas and the Black Messiah (Shaka King, 2021), Till (Chinonye Chukwu, 2022), Rustin (George C. Wolfe, 2023). Just Mercy, however, is not completely alone in extending the civil rights narrative to later decades. It is part of a wave that also includes Show Me a Hero, When They See Us, and We Own This City.

2 As of this writing, Hall’s article has been cited more than 1800 times, which speaks to just how influential her argument has become.

3 Alexander’s position in this discussion about change and continuity in the history of American racial oppression connects to debates about the long civil rights narrative. Though her book in itself is a form of civil rights activism, Alexander’s book is not so much a history of civil rights activism as it is about her analysis of persistent patterns of racial oppression. Her proclamation of a new Jim Crow emphasizes continuity over change. Historian Jørn Brøndal, whose own book on African American history arguably embraces a long civil rights narrative (Det sorte USA), counters Alexander’s argument and the historical narrative found in Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th (2016), which uses Alexander as an expert for its vision of American history and society. Brøndal objects to their continuity arguments because he does not believe that they take into account the victories of the civil rights movement of the 1960s or the importance of Barack Obama’s electoral triumphs in 2008 and 2012 (“Slaveri”).

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Electronic reference

Johanne Østergaard and Mikkel Jensen, “This is 1986. This isn’t like the 60s and 50s”: Locating the Long Civil Rights Narrative in Just Mercy (2019)European journal of American studies [Online], 19-2 | 2024, Online since 07 June 2024, connection on 24 July 2024. URL:

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About the authors

Johanne Østergaard

Johanne Østergaard holds an MA in English and Psychology from Aalborg University.

Mikkel Jensen

Mikkel Jensen is Associate Professor of American Culture, Society, and Media at the Department of Culture and Learning, Aalborg University. He is the author of David Simon’s American City (Manchester UP, 2024), which explores how showrunner David Simon’s television series engage with historical realities in urban America. His work on American media and history has appeared in journals such as American Studies in ScandinaviaJournal of Working-Class Studies, and Series: International Journal of TV Serial Narratives.

By this author

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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