The Just Mercy Film Is a Piece of Legal Writing, and That’s Why It Works

I saw Just Mercy yesterday, and it affected me, as I expected.

Not just because I’m a public defender. Not just because I was fortunate enough to hear Bryan Stevenson speak as I was beginning law school, or because I was then fortunate enough to have him as a professor. And oddly, perhaps not because I thought the film advanced the cinematic conversation.

It’s a very well-made film. I think I would have really enjoyed it even if I weren’t a lawyer. But there are many things it isn’t. It’s not one of those films that pushes boundaries or redefines storytelling. The frame that the writers use is rather familiar, you can tell where most of the emotional payoff is going to be, and (from what I recall of the plot points in the book) certain facts are massaged in a very Hollywood-esque way to set those payoffs up.

But I think discussing this film on its artistic merits—not to take away from what it does do well—misses the point. Forty-odd years into the modern era of the Hollywood blockbuster, the idea of film as art is disappearing from box-office balance sheets, an undeniable fact regardless of how you feel about it. And while I’m not saying anything about the quality of US art films over time, the way we talk about movies as cultural touchstones these days is as large a driver of the culture war as almost anything else.

And on those terms, as a driver of cultural conversation, Just Mercy is an unmitigated success. It’s a 136-minute pitch for reimagining the way most Americans think about the criminal system. Not for those who already work in this area or know the horrors it creates, but for the general public. It’s a movie that’s trying to speak directly to people who have no personal experience with the criminal system. People who might not understand the fuss about giving “criminals” a break. People who wouldn’t have any reason to have picked up the book.

Oh, the book. The book stories I consider the most powerful are necessarily omitted from the movie or only hinted at. McMillian is more of a framing device than a front-and-center character, a choice that worked to great effect in the book…but I understand how the movie needs a single illustrative example of the work to be done.

I have thought a lot about legal writing in the past year and change. We were taught in law school about the different categories of writing that exist: brief/motion writing, memo writing, correspondence with clients or opposing counsel, etc. But the more I practice, the more I believe that all of these types of writing, whether they’re supposed to be persuasive or “objective”, are all the same. They’re all the same kind of advocacy, but tailored to a different audience and cognizant of a different context.

In that vein, Professor Stevenson has found a way to reach an audience that is often considered unreachable, one that has the power to upend the system wholesale: the general public. Not just as jurors, although that is part of the balance. But also as supporters of, and even advocates for, justice. Restorative justice, transitional justice, justice that many people can dismiss as self-serving coming from those with criminal system experiences.

And while it might not be a traditional piece of “writing,” this film, especially in its deviations from the book, is advocacy that is carefully tailored to benefit not only his clients but also mine (and every public defender’s). The movie makes numerous choices in the movie to showcase certain parts of the criminal system that the general public either understands poorly or is completely unaware of. As with the best legal writing, this indicates an understanding of what narrative must be built to reach the audience and an understanding how to do it in context (as opposed to, say, a book or a TED talk). This was something I was first told in my legal writing class, but it was not something I truly grasped until I took Racial Justice and the Law with Professor Stevenson. And personally, watching Michael B. Jordan, watching Wallace, watching Oscar Grant deliver that narrative is icing on the cake.

As somebody who largely followed Stevenson into this field because of what I heard from him in person, I hope people (both lawyers and nonlawyers) recognize how much work there is to be done on that front, and how necessary it is to be done. And to that end, this movie provides not only hope, but a path forward.

The work beckons.

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