One would like to hope that justice is served every time a legal matter arises, but, fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), most of us are wise enough to realize that’s not the case. That’s especially troubling in proceedings where capital punishment is concerned, given the ramifications involved. We can only hope that matters turn out as they should and that the truth is not sacrificed in the process. Such is the dicey conundrum raised in the gripping new, fact-based legal drama, “Just Mercy” (web site, trailer).
In 1986, logger Walter “Johnny D.” McMillan (Jamie Foxx) was on his way home from working in the woods near Monroeville, Alabama, when he was stopped at a roadblock and questioned by the local sheriff (Michael Harding). Perplexed at what was happening, Walter quickly learned that he was the prime suspect in the murder of Ronda Morrison, an 18-year-old dry cleaner clerk, a crime for which he was subsequently arrested, convicted, imprisoned and sentenced to death.
The fact that the murder victim was a White woman and that Walter was a Black man was passed off as incidental. But, with this being small-town Alabama, old prejudices lingered even decades after the days of the Civil Rights Movement and despite the fact that Walter had no history of violence. In fact, the only “notoriety” he had earned was for a widely known extramarital affair that he had with a White woman, something that, in the minds of authorities, somehow automatically made him a suspect in an otherwise-unrelated murder. And, because of this, an innocent man now faced the prospect of execution for a crime he didn’t commit. However, an advocate for Walter’s justice would soon be on his way.
In 1989, idealistic young African-American lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) moved to Alabama to work with poor individuals who could not afford legal representation. Having grown up in Delaware with Northern sensibilities, this relocation to the South was something of an eye-opener for the Harvard Law School graduate. However, despite the differences in attitude, Stevenson was by no means naïve, a trait that enabled him to navigate the local conditions and prompted him to work even more aggressively on his clients’ behalf. That was particularly true when he began assisting prisoners on death row.
With the assistance of inmate rights advocate Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), Bryan launched the Equal Justice Initiative to help the underprivileged. But, when he initially met with Walter, he found his prospective client to be quite discouraged, essentially reconciled to his fate. In fact, Bryan had to work hard to convince Walter that it was worth making the effort to take another look at his case. It proved to be a worthwhile decision.
Bryan quickly learned that local officials were so anxious to allay public fears about Morrison’s death that they were willing to do virtually anything to obtain a conviction to be able to say that the murder had been solved, whether or not that was indeed true. In line with that, Bryan discovered that Walter had been found guilty on the basis of flimsy evidence, mostly the questionable and contradictory testimony of convicted felon Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), who apparently agreed to provide authorities what they wanted in exchange for a lighter sentence in his own pending trial. What’s more, numerous witnesses who placed Walter at a church fish fry at the time of the murder were never questioned about their knowledge of his whereabouts. So, given the foregoing, Bryan sought to get Walter a new trial, one through which he was convinced his client would be exonerated.
However, moving forward proved more difficult than anticipated. When Bryan met with prosecutor Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall) to seek his cooperation, he refused to help. And, when McMillan family friend Darnell Houston (Darrell Britt-Gibson) agreed to testify in Walter’s defense, he was arrested for perjury, a deliberate act of harassment by authorities aimed at intimidating a potentially key witness from speaking up. These developments called for Bryan to become more aggressive – and more creative – in coming up with tactics to counter opponents who were committed to thwart the attorney’s efforts at every turn. But, with an innocent man’s life on the line, drastic measures are sometimes necessary, as Bryan and Walter found out as their story played out.
It’s a pretty safe bet that the majority of us believe in the notion of fairness, especially where justice is concerned. That’s why it so strongly irks us when we see it being compromised or circumvented, especially in legal matters. That’s perhaps most true where capital crimes and punishment are involved; getting things right is so supremely important, because there’s no going back once the sentence is carried out. And, considering how much is at stake, pity those who get it wrong.
Which is why it’s so vital that the accused have astute, courageous advocates to stand up for those who may not be able to fight for themselves as effectively as they otherwise might. These champions often possess the requisite qualities for this and don’t hesitate to employ them in their beliefs and actions to aid those whose lives hang in the balance. They’re firm in their commitments to get at the truth and to raise it to the surface in the cause of justice, as well as in defeating those who would deliberately use subterfuge to subvert this principle and serve their own particular agendas. And, if these advocates perform their duties as they should, the truth will out.
Engaging in such endeavors requires facing one’s fears, for if these apprehensions are allowed to hold sway, they could easily undermine efforts at getting to the truth. This can be difficult even for those who are perceived as being intrinsically powerful. Consider Bryan’s foray into the Alabama criminal justice system of the 1980s and ʻ90s. Despite his Harvard degree, his legal expertise and the backing of the law, he was nevertheless treading into heavily prejudicial territory where many believed a Black man simply was not supposed to wield that kind of power in the first place (let alone be able to make use of it in the support of a racial peer who had been allegedly rightfully convicted of a crime for which he was now living out the sentence served upon him). Such an undertaking could be seen as akin to stepping into the lion’s den, an act of true courage, the kind that sweeps fears aside and enables one to move forward forthrightly to achieve a just and resolute outcome. Now, this is not to suggest that every attorney is some kind of superhero, but those who willingly take on ventures like this often possess the right mix of attributes to carry out their missions, backed by the types of acumen and actions needed to facilitate them.
As valuable as these skills and qualities are, however, sometimes they may not be enough under especially tricky circumstances, as Bryan discovered in his defense of Walter. He found that he needed to get creative in his approach, tapping into his imagination and devising unconventional plans to move his case forward. Given the obstacles being placed before him, Bryan needed to come up with solutions that obliterated these limitations and enabled him to get his client’s case heard. Fortunately, Bryan had the vision to employ such ingenuity in his efforts, and he made use of it in masterful ways in the face of formidable opposition.
Those who excel in endeavors like this often reap tremendous rewards for their work. But, then, that’s because they’re driven to do it in the first place, following their hearts and beliefs to get the job done – and feeling the devastation when they don’t, incidents that ultimately prompt them to work that much harder at achieving success the next time around. What’s most important, though, is that they stick with their initiatives, because such efforts represent their destiny to be their best, truest selves for the betterment of themselves and others. In the work that Bryan did in Walter’s case, and in the many others with additional clients that followed, he has lived out his vision, bringing attention – and rectification – to many seemingly hopeless situations where justice indeed needed to be served.
Despite some occasional pacing issues and a storytelling approach that’s fairly conventional for films of this type, “Just Mercy” nevertheless reaches out and grabs viewers with an intensity that earns the genuinely heartfelt emotions it evokes from audiences. With fine performances by Jordan and Screen Actors Guild Award nominee Foxx, the picture touches in ways that movies of this stripe typically don’t despite similarity in subject matter and narrative. In fact, the film is so effective in conveying its message that it received the Freedom of Expression Award from the National Board of Review.
One would think in this day and age that we shouldn’t need films with stories like this any more, that we’ve moved beyond having to be reminded of messages like this. Various other pictures, such as “Crown Heights” (2017), “Brian Banks” (2018), “Monsters and Men” (2018) and the recently released “Clemency” (2019), among others, have poignantly dealt with issues of miscarriages of justice and/or questionable death sentences involving minorities, so another story in this same vein might easily be seen as redundant. Yet, given the prevailing conditions in our increasingly polarized society, it’s obvious the need is still there, and, thankfully, we have pictures like “Just Mercy” to step up and help fill that void. Let’s hope that need disappears one day – and preferably sooner rather than later.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
The Evolution of One’s Destiny
Getting to where we’re meant to be in life sometimes takes us down some unusual and unexpected paths. We may stand back and wonder why we’re going in a certain direction when we’re convinced we’re supposed to go another way. But, no matter how seemingly far afield we may wander, we often find we’re on exactly the right course, and the journey is one of our own making, based on our innermost heartfelt sentiments. It’s a process exemplified in the new fact-based historical drama, “The Two Popes” (web site, trailer).
With the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005, the College of Cardinals convened to elect a successor. The conclave came at a critical time in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, one whose outcome would play a significant role in the future direction of the institution. Would the Cardinals elect a new pope from the conservative arm of the Church in an effort to preserve its longstanding traditions, policies and practices? Or would they strike out in a new direction, choosing a reformer who would bring the Church into the 21st Century and more in line with a world characterized by ever-changing conditions?
In the end, this schism was clearly reflected in the results. The College elected German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) to become Pope Benedict XVI, a staunch dogmatic conservative determined to preserve the institution’s time-honored conventions, a choice disapproved of by many progressive-minded Catholics who believed their concerns would be ignored (and who not so subtly mistrusted the ascension of a German to the papacy). Meanwhile, the runner-up in the balloting was Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, a reformer who saw a pressing need for the Church to reconsider the close-minded positions of many of its policies, an effort aimed at stopping the exodus of Catholics (especially young ones) from the institution. But, having lost out on his bid to become John Paul’s successor, the Cardinal discreetly returned to Latin America to carry on his work in his home diocese.
Seven years later, however, Benedict’s reign became embroiled in a series of incendiary incidents that came to be known collectively as the Vatican Leaks Scandals. His ability and willingness to carry on under a microscope of global scrutiny made him quietly but decidedly leery about his future as Pope.
At the same time, a world away, Cardinal Bergoglio began to question his own future, sending a letter to Benedict seeking permission to retire from his position. That inquiry went unanswered for a prolonged period until one day when he was unexpectedly summoned for an audience with the Holy Father. Ironically, he already had a plane ticket for the trip in hand – one that he purchased before receiving the pontiff’s notification.
Meeting at the Palace of Castel Gondolfo, the Pope’s summer residence outside of Rome, Benedict and the Cardinal convened for a series of discussions. The tone was initially contentious, each symbolically reflecting the views that they held regarding the state and future of the Church. And, to confound matters further, Benedict repeatedly refused to address the Cardinal’s retirement request. The cryptic progression of events prompted Bergoglio to wonder why he was asked to come visit in the first place.
In quiet moments together, however, the formal veneer between the two clerics began to drop as each of them spoke about their interests and personal histories. The Pope talked about his musical background and his favorite TV show, among other topics. Meanwhile, the Cardinal spoke about his calling to the Church, citing the time when his younger self (Juan Minujin) broke off his engagement to his fiancée (Cristina Banegas) and joined the Jesuits. Thus began Bergoglio’s odyssey of faith, a journey that took him through a diverse array of religious and secular experiences that brought him to where he was at that moment.
Shortly thereafter, with the scope of the scandals widening, Benedict returned to Rome, accompanied by the still-perplexed Cardinal. But, upon their arrival at the Vatican, the Pope’s reasons for wanting to meet with the Cardinal at last became clear – that he was planning to step down from the papacy and wanted Bergoglio to be his successor, something the Holy Father wouldn’t be able to do if he were to grant the Cardinal’s retirement request.
Needless to say, the Cardinal was shocked. The thought of a pope resigning was virtually unheard of; it represented a break in ecclesiastical and administrative continuity that was seen as inconceivable and unacceptable. And the prospect of ascending to the papacy as Benedict’s successor was overwhelming; Bergoglio felt undeserving of the distinction, especially in light of troubling incidents from his past, most notably his perceived collaboration with Argentina’s military junta in its handling of the nation’s political and social “undesirables” (including fellow Jesuits) during the days of the Dirty War from 1976 to 1983. Through flashbacks interspersed with the clerics’ conversations, viewers witness a younger Bergoglio struggle with his conscience over the handling of these events, particularly where safeguarding the well-being of his colleagues Father Franz Jalics (Lisandro Fiks) and Father Orlando Yorio (Germán de Silva) was concerned, a painful episode that resulted in the future Cardinal’s demotion to a parish priest in a remote locale.
However, the more Benedict and Bergoglio conversed, the more revelatory, profound and reflective their discussions became. It also became apparent that they each had a destiny to fulfill and that they were now at the cross-roads of seeing their fates realized. It would not be long before the Cardinal from so far away would be named the first Jesuit pontiff, Pope Francis.
Assuming the role of pope would likely be a daunting task for virtually anyone. It’s an act that carries tremendous responsibilities, not only administratively, but also spiritually. It’s the kind of undertaking that calls for looking deeply within and getting in touch with one’s heart. This frequently calls for making an honest and sincere assessment of one’s innermost intimate beliefs, an ability to take an accurate and comprehensive inventory of these notions as a means for carrying out the duties of the office. And that’s important, for that heartfelt input plays a crucial role in determining the course of events in the Church and, conceivably, in helping to shape the nature of the world at large.
For instance, as becomes apparent early on in the film, Benedict and Bergoglio each become symbolic embodiments of their viewpoints on how they see the Church. Each is a living and breathing personification of their respective outlooks, with Benedict representing the conservative traditionalist and Bergoglio the progressively minded reformer. And those exemplifications (and everything stemming from them) come directly from the beliefs each of them hold.
The clerics’ success at this arises in large part from their ability to hear – and listen to – the small, still voice within each of us. Some might call this a search for the word of God, while others might think of this as tuning in to our intuition. Such a distinction is probably more semantic than anything else, given that the results that arise from whatever one calls it are likely the same in each case. This is important, though, considering what can develop from heeding the advice that comes from this practice. For example, when the Cardinal purchased his plane ticket to Rome before receiving the Pope’s summons for a meeting, he wasn’t entirely sure why he was doing so. But his intuitional/divinely inspired hunch proved correct in light of what happened by making the purchase and taking the trip, even if his expectations for the journey didn’t precisely align with the eventual outcome.
Tapping into one’s beliefs also plays a significant role in learning how to balance the intrinsically connected duality of our inner and outer worlds. By placing excessive emphasis on the inner spiritual realm, we may come to feel less in touch with the physical existence of which we’re just as much a part. While there’s nothing wrong with having a robust spiritual orientation, we must also remember that we’re present in the outer world as well. To that end, ideally we should seek to strike a healthy balance between the two and eschew the temptation to become irretrievably locked into the intangible alone.
As the film illustrates, Benedict often seems so wrapped up in the ecclesiastical life that he loses sight of the real world around him. He’s seen as out of touch and aloof, trying to impose his limited and outmoded worldview on a reality characterized by a greater range of diversity, a narrow outlook that’s kept him from being aware of many of even the most basic aspects of everyday life. The Cardinal, by contrast, has a firm grasp on recognizing the significance of both the spiritual realm from which he draws inspiration and guidance and the physical world in which he dwells. This makes him more pragmatic, more in touch with the commonplace elements of living. He even makes plain his love of such secular pursuits as World Cup soccer and dancing the tango, diversions one may not readily associate with a cleric of his standing. But his ardent attraction to these pastimes illustrates that he’s just as much in the world as he is in his heart.
Beliefs also figure significantly into our ability to overcome limitations, as is very much the case with the Cardinal. In many respects, his ascendancy represents a number of firsts: He’s the first Jesuit pope. He’s the first pope from the Americas. And he’s the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere. What’s more, he’s an individual who successfully managed to rise from some of the lowest ranks within the Church to its highest office. And it’s an accomplishment attained by someone who felt unworthy of it, the endorsements and support of others notwithstanding. His experience shows us we can achieve what might seem unthinkable, an inspiring attainment we can all draw from.
As the foregoing shows, using beliefs to satisfy worldly goals is obviously important, but drawing upon them to fulfill intangible objectives is just as significant and attainable, even if the prospect seems less likely. For example, both Benedict and the Cardinal have issues regarding a desire for redemption and forgiveness, something that they each long for but that they both believe may be out of their grasp. However, when we’re firmly rooted in our beliefs – and have the faith to see them realized – there’s no telling what wishes we can see come true. “Ask and ye shall receive,” it would seem, is a notion not limited to religious texts.
The lives of Benedict and Bergoglio indeed illustrate a rich and fulfilling metaphysical experience, and they epitomize the wisely held concept that everything is in a constant state of becoming. This is especially true for the Cardinal, as seen by his life path. As an individual who sacrificed much to earnestly pursue his faith (and endured numerous hardships along the way), he managed to overcome setbacks and ascend to the highest office of the Church. Bergoglio’s life clearly demonstrates such evolution at work, something that ever steers him toward his destiny and that can even occur with stunning speed (such as when he went to Rome to resign and ended up becoming the heir apparent to the papacy). What a remarkable existence indeed.
This modestly engaging look at the sometimes-contentious, sometimes-brotherly relationship of Pope Benedict XVI and the future Pope Francis details how this highly unusual transition came into being (and why), particularly from the standpoint of the personal motivations involved. However, while this insightful offering (both in philosophical and historic terms) features fine performances by Hopkins and Pryce, as well as a number of thoughtful dialogues about faith, tradition and the future of the Church, the picture’s sometimes-uneven pacing and occasionally wooden, somewhat stagey exchanges tend to bog down the flow of the narrative despite the best efforts of its two leads to conceal these shortcomings. This is by no means a bad film, but it doesn’t always live up to the hyped praise it’s received, either. The picture, which played briefly at a number of film festivals last fall, is now available for online streaming.
The praise that the film has earned has been accompanied by a number of awards season accolades, most notably three Oscar nominations for the performances of Hopkins and Pryce, as well as for its adapted screenplay. The picture duplicated these honors in the BAFTA Awards contest, with additional nods for best casting and best British film. And, in earlier competitions, this release received two Critics Choice Award nominations for the performances of Hopkins and Pryce and four Golden Globe Award nods for best dramatic picture, best screenplay and the portrayals of the two popes.
It’s been said “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” Those at the pinnacle of the religious hierarchy clearly understand this. But it’s also true for those who implicitly place their trust in our divine collaborator, the one who works Its magic to help us transform our intentions into realized dreams (even if It doesn’t necessarily take the route we think It should). What ultimately matters, though, is that we arrive where we’re meant to be, ever evolving to fulfill our wishes and our destiny and, one would hope, to create a better world for us all.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Who Will Take Home Statues on Awards Night?
With the Academy Awards just around the corner, it’s time for my annual predictions on who will take home statues on Oscar night. Find out more by reading my blog on the subject, “Who Will Win This Year’s Oscars?”, available by clicking here. And be sure to check out my scorecard, which will appear shortly after the ceremony.
In the meantime, you can also hear my predictions in my annual irreverent look at the Oscars on the latest edition of TheCoffeeCast with host Tom Cheevers (strong language caution!), available by clicking here. In addition, join yours truly for a lively group discussion about the awards on the Positively Joieful podcast with host Joie Lamar, available beginning February 8 by clicking here.
Copyright © 2020, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.